Empty Bargains [Jason McCann]

"I have nothing else to offer you," Markus barked through gritted teeth, his fists clenched hard at his sides. Jason shook his head, chuckling. "I only want one thing, and it's in this room," he sneered. My brother took a step closer to me, trying to push me toward the door. Jason's eyes flashed over and caught mine, a glint in his eye while a shiver went down my spine. "What do you want?" Markus asked, impatient. Jason's head nodded in my direction. I froze and the room fell deafeningly silent. "I want her."

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12. ~9.18~

    It had been two days since I’d figured out how to win Jason’s game, but I hadn’t gotten anywhere significant.

 

    I’d been wearing the clothes Jason had bought me; I was a little frustrated that I liked the style.  Every morning and night since Tuesday I’d made the guys a meal, making sure to throw a smile in Jason’s direction.  When I woke up (still in Jason’s bed after his refusal to let me sleep on the air mattress) I wasn’t hostile—I had even said a “good morning” the day before.

 

    When I thought about it, three days wasn’t a long time when I was trying to get someone like Jason to like me.  I’d been snarky and antagonistic since they’d dragged me in and thrown me into the basement; not without reason, of course.  It would take a while to see a change in Jason.

 

    But all the while, I was wondering where Tyler and Sam were.  I would’ve expected they’d have figured something out by now.  If all else failed, wouldn’t they just result to forcing their way in?  Tyler knew I’d at least do that for him.  Then again, I didn’t always think things through in their entirety before acting.  The point was that I felt abandoned, after thirteen days at Jason’s place.

 

    I shook my head as I sat back in my bean bag chair, watching at the ceiling fan as always.  It was around three, and I was alone in the house with Leo and Grant.  I hadn’t spoken to either of them since the night before, which felt like forever when all I did was sit and stare at an inanimate object.  They were both keeping their distance because I could tell they knew I was bluffing.  By the way I was acting, I didn’t know how anyone else couldn’t see it as well—they most likely just hadn’t said anything because I was making food and acting less annoying.  It was almost painful for me to be kind to Jason, but somehow it’d gotten better.

 

    Leo shuffled into the room from the staircase and glanced my way.  I smiled at him out of habit, probably a little too enthusiastically.  He rolled his eyes and kept walking, though I saw the corners of his mouth twitch upward.

 

    “You don’t have to play that bullshit nice-girl act when Jason isn’t here,” he said as he moved into the kitchen area.  “Grant and I both know you’re just trying to screw with him.”

 

    I almost let out a sigh of relief.  “It’s good to know even you aren’t that thick,” I said.  I sat up, watching where he’d been a few seconds ago.  Hesitating with my next question, I drummed my fingers on my leg.  “Is it working?”

 

    Leo snorted.  “I don’t know.  Jason doesn’t usually tell me about how he’s feeling.”

 

    I huffed and folded my hands, dropping my eyes to the ground.  If Jason hadn’t shown any notable signs of change, I wasn’t working hard enough.  I just needed one breakthrough, one of his desires, and it would be smooth sailing for me.  Granted, I didn’t know how much energy Jason invested into the emotional aspects of his life, but this seemed better than any other option I could come up with.

 

    I’d been quiet for about a minute when Leo spoke again.

 

    “There was this one girl,” he said absentmindedly.  “Her name was Leah.  She was hot, no doubt about it.  And she was nice,” Leo added after I cleared my throat loudly.  “Jason met her at a party—one we were supposed to be crashing, actually.  But one look at her and the plan disappeared; two hours later they were up in Jason’s room, making a lot of noise.”  He paused, and I didn’t know whether his laugh was out of lack of comfort or actual humor.  “He was starry-eyed for days.  They ended up having a fling for a month or two, then one day she up and leaves.  Jason wasn’t the same for weeks.”

 

    I thought about this for a few seconds.  From that, it sounded like I had been wrong—Jason invested a lot of energy into things like that.  But maybe now it was different, after her, because whoever Leo was talking about didn’t seem like Jason.  But what Jason had been doing for me, even when I hadn’t decided to treat him nicely…  Leo’s story didn’t sound like a game.  Was Jason’s kindness a game?

 

    I mentally shook myself.  Of course it was.  This was exactly what he wanted—he wanted me to overthink things.

 

    “How long ago was that?” I asked.

 

    Leo didn’t speak for a few seconds.  “April, I think, is when he started acting normal again.  There hasn’t been anyone he’s shown particular interest in, let alone allowed into the house.  You’re the first girl of Jason’s since Leah to see the inside of this place.”

 

    My annoyance spiked.  “I’m not Jason’s,” I nearly hissed as I stood abruptly.  If that’s what Jason saw me as, the gig was up.  I was done playing this game if he saw me as an obedient piece of property.

 

    Leo walked into the living room.  “That’s not what I meant,” he sighed.  “You’re the first girl Jason himself has brought into the house.  He’s not one to view people as property.”

 

    I sneered.  “Except when he saves their life.  Then he can treat you like shit.”

 

    He grimaced.  “It’s different for me.  I actually owe him.  But girls—you—he’s better than that.  You’ve seen yourself; those clothes he bought you?” he gestured to the loose gray tank and black leggings I wore.  “Jason wasn’t trying to screw with you then.”

 

    I bit my lip.  “I don’t believe you.”

 

    Leo held up his hands.  “You don’t have to.  I’m just trying to tell you that for some reason, Jason sees you differently.”

 

    My chest squeezed and filled with warmth, and I almost made a noise of disgust at myself.  The fact that I was special to Jason McCann shouldn’t have been flattering in the least.  I should’ve been even more repulsed, but I couldn’t force myself to feel that way.

 

    Contrary to what I was feeling, I said, “He probably sees me as some way to bargain territory and money with Markus.  That’s all the meaning I have to him.”  For some reason, the thought that I didn’t mean more than that to Jason bothered me.

 

    “Think what you want,” Leo said, turning back to walk toward the table.  “You don’t have to listen to me.  But I do have to admit, you don’t bring the room down as much when you’re acting.”

 

    I dropped back into my bean bag and listened as Leo rummaged around in the fridge.  The sound of glass clinking hit my ears and I closed my eyes, taking several deep breaths.  My conversation with Leo meant nothing; I would still have to get Jason to fall for me.  But I knew how to do it quicker from Leo’s story.  My heartbeat quickened and my stomach knotted as I thought about it.

 

    To take my mind off of it, I asked Leo, “What do you want for dinner?”

 

    “You’re asking me?” he chuckled.  I glanced at him in time to watch him open a can of soda.  “Since when have you asked on opinions for meals?”

 

    I shrugged.  “Since you called my bluff, but didn’t snitch.  We’ll watch out for each other.”  I smiled, genuine this time, but I knew better than to completely trust one of Jason’s guys.  Leo was the nicest on the surface, but he wasn’t the brightest, nor the most loyal.

 

    Leo returned the smile.  “In that case, how about spaghetti?”

 

    I cocked an eyebrow.  “Why such a simple dish?  I can make a killer lo mein dish and you choose spaghetti.”

 

    The corners of his mouth twitched.  “I haven’t had homemade spaghetti since my mom died when I was sixteen.”

 

    My expression dropped, caught completely off guard.  The way he’d said it, I could tell he missed her.  I couldn’t pretend I knew what it felt like to have a mother, but I knew it hurt to have someone torn from your life.  My chest ached for him, but I collected myself and stood.

 

    “Homemade spaghetti it is,” I said.  “It’ll be the best damn pasta you’ve ever had.”

 

    Leo smiled.  “Thanks, Phoebe.”

 

 

 

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    Three hours later I was pouring a steaming pot of angel hair noodles into a strainer.  The vapor bit at my hands but I ignored it, and set the pot back on the stove a few seconds later.  Meat sauce was cooking and almost finished, and I stirred it gently before returning to the noodles and pouring them into a serving bowl.

 

    The smell of garlic bread filled my nose, a request I’d made for Blondie or whoever did the shopping.  I turned off a timer as Grant walked into the kitchen with his hands in his pockets.  I pulled out a drawer and grabbed a knife, then set it out on the counter next to the bread.  Closing the door with my hip, I nodded at it.

 

    “Mind helping me cut up the bread?”  Grant shrugged and picked up the knife.  I turned back to the sauce while he cut.  

 

    I hadn’t had the same conversation with Grant as I’d had with Leo, and it showed.  Grant was still unsure of me, edging around me like he didn’t know what I was playing at quite yet.  He didn’t ask, though, so I didn’t tell.

 

    “I hope you’re planning on making more,” Grant said absently.

 

    I cocked an eyebrow.  “My cooking is just that great?”

 

    He shook his head.  “Jason’s party is tonight.  He said he’s opening doors around eight.”

 

    I almost groaned.  I’d forgotten about it completely, pushing it out of my mind to focus on how I was treating Jason.  The party didn’t really change much of the schedule, but it was an annoyance I could do without.

 

    “I don’t have enough time to cook for that many people,” I sighed, pulling the pan of sauce off the stove and onto a cooling pad.  “You’ll have to run out for more food, not to mention alcohol.”  My eyes traveled around the kitchen.  “You have a surprisingly bare stash of booze.”

 

    Grant shrugged.  “Among all the shit we do, drinking isn’t really one of them.  But Jason sent Lucas out for some, and Xander is out getting other food.”

 

    I turned and pulled out a bowl from one of the cabinets.  “I haven’t seen Carter in a while.  Where’s he been?”

 

    “Don’t know,” he replied, cutting the last slice of bread.  “He disappears sometimes.  Pisses Jason off, but he always manages to make it back before things get ugly.”

 

    I nodded.  “Sounds like Emmett.”

 

    Grant gave me a fleeting glance before setting the knife down and taking the bowl from my outstretched hand.  He watched the counter intently while he spoke his next few words.

 

    “Why haven’t you been talking about them lately?”

 

    I blinked.  “Who?”

 

    “Your gang,” he said impatiently.  “All of the sudden, you flipped on a switch, and just like that you stop complaining and are actually not painful to be around.”

 

    The corners of my mouth twitched upward.  “It looks like I’m screwing with you more than I am Jason.”

 

    A forced breath left Grant’s mouth.  “So that’s what this is about.  I have to admit, it might’ve worked if Jason had a weaker mind.  Let me tell you right now that just being nice won’t throw him off enough to get what you want.”

 

    I folded my arms.  “How do you know what I want?”

 

    Grant rolled his eyes.  “You want exactly what your brother, or Markus, or anyone around you wants—you want to destroy Jason.”

 

    I didn’t speak, and he took my silence as confirmation.  He placed the bowl on the island and walked toward the table, then fell back into one of the chairs.

 

    “You’ll have to try a hell of a lot harder to get anywhere near wounding him,” Grant said.

 

    My hands found the counter and squeezed hard.  “What about Leah?  Didn’t that screw with him?”

 

    He snorted.  “Who told you about that?  Leo?”  When I didn’t reply, Grant shook his head.  “Leah was a phase.  Jason is propelled mainly by lust, but after Leah he didn’t choose to indulge on much else.  He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.”  After seeing the exasperated expression on my face, he sighed.  “Leo also probably told you you’re the first girl Jason’s invited in—well, you get the point—since then.  It’s true, but personally I don’t think you should think much of that.”

 

    I held up my hand.  “I’m not having this conversation with you,” I told him curtly.

 

    Truthfully, I was frustrated that Grant was contradicting Leo, or maybe it was the other way around.  I wanted Leo to be right; I wanted Jason to have a weakness, not a life lesson.  I needed this way to wound him.

 

    Grant shrugged.  “Whatever.  Good luck with whatever you’re trying.  Just know this: when Jason’s hosting a party, shit gets serious.  This is his place, and people play by his rules or not at all.  His ties are important to him, and he doesn’t like being interrupted or embarrassed.”

 

    I nodded a sarcastic thanks as he stood and left the room.  Behind me I heard the sauce sizzling a little, and turned to stir it and pour it into a separate bowl.  As I set the empty pan into the sink,  I thought hard about what both Grant and Leo had said.

 

    There wasn’t a doubt about the fact that Leah had been a setback for a period of time.  At least that part was easy.  But what wasn’t easy was how Leo had said I had some sort of meaning to Jason, but Grant had said not to think anything of it.

 

    A wave of ache settled in the pit of my stomach against my will.  For some reason, I actually wanted to mean something to him.  No matter how hard I tried to push that thought out of my mind, it wouldn’t go away.

 

    My only consolation was that I was going to force myself to mean something to Jason, even though he meant nothing to me.  Then I could take him down from the inside, and go back to Tyler and Sam and the rest of my group.

 

    I glanced at the clock.  It was about half-past six, almost exactly an hour and a half before eight.  I knew people wouldn’t even start showing up until at least nine-thirty, seeing as dark didn’t hit until somewhere around then.  Figuring I had enough time to feed a couple guys and myself, clean up, prepare more food, and get dressed, I pulled a few bowls out from the cabinets.  I called Leo and Grant down and they ate quickly, Leo collapsing in front of the TV and Grant disappearing into his room after they’d finished.

 

    “Was it any good?” I asked him from the table as I grabbed his empty bowl.

 

    Leo rubbed his stomach.  “That was really good, Phoebe.  Like, really good.  Thanks for making it.”

 

    I smiled.  “No problem.”

 

    With that, I turned and began to wash dishes at the sink.  A few minutes later the garage door opened and Xander thumped up the stairs, dropping several bags of food he’d gotten on the island.  He gave me a small grunt of recognition and I nodded at him—it was possibly the least hostile exchange we’d ever had, but he headed upstairs without hardly pausing.

 

    I looked into the bags and sifted through the platters and boxes among them.  All of them fit in the fridge easily, and I put the rest of the dishes I’d cleaned away after putting the dry food into the pantry.

 

    I realized grudgingly that now Xander was back and I had to put my act on again.  Sighing, I stuffed the empty plastic bags into the wastebasket and slid into a seat at the table.  My eyes found Leo, lying back in a bean bag with his eyes closed and his arm over his chest.  He looked peaceful—I wished I could be as easy going as him, but given my current circumstances, it was hard.

 

    Drawing in a breath, I envisioned the party tonight.  There would be loud music and the lights would be turned down.  A thick cloud of sunk-y smelling smoke would hang over everyone, the product of joints in almost everyone’s hand.  Empty beer cans would litter the floors and counters, and a either a drinking game or poker would be going on where I sat at the kitchen table.  Girls—cheap prostitutes, most likely—would be hanging around ever alpha male in this place.  Jason included.

 

    I cursed under my breath.  I’d have to work tonight to get Jason alone, or to at least stick close to him.  Girls threw themselves at him.  Even though I most certainly wasn’t one of them, I’d have to shove a few out of the way to get by his side.  But maybe it would be easy.  After all, I was the first girl he’d brought into the house after Leah…

 

    Blinking, I shook the thought from my head.  I didn’t mean that much to Jason, as much as I didn’t want to believe it.  He’d probably pay more attention to his drug deals and ties than anything else, like Grant had said.  Plus, if all else failed, I slept in the same room as him.

 

    The garage door slammed shut downstairs and brought me out of my thoughts.  I turned around in time to see Blondie enter the room with three bags on each arm, straining to make it to the island.  Instead of lifting them to the surface of the counter, he let the down right next to it.  I glanced at the bags and estimated about ten cartons of beer, four carriers of wine coolers, and three large bottles of vodka between the six sacks.  Blondie rubbed his hands on his pant legs, breathing a little harder than normal.

 

    “These need to go in the fridge, or cooler, or something,” he said, directed at me.

 

    I suppressed the spike of annoyance that went through me, not even clenching my teeth.  With Blondie, I was getting good at portraying a character.  “Alright.  Is there enough for the party tonight?”

 

    He shrugged as he walked past.  “Probably not.  They’ll bring more when they come.”

 

    And with that, he disappeared behind the door of his room, the only room on this floor.  I rolled my eyes and took up one of the bags.  Straining a little, I lugged it over to the fridge and opened the door.  There was a perfect spot for the bag at the bottom, and I slid it in.  The other two bags followed, a little tighter fitting to the space.

 

    “Leo?” I called into the living room.

 

    “Yeah?” he replied, his voice sounding groggy.

 

    “When will Jason be back?”

 

    A pause.  “He mentioned sometime around seven.”

 

    By now it was around six-thirty, and Jason would be home soon.  I dusted my hands off, walked through the living room and gave Leo a quick thanks, then jogged up the stairs and into Jason’s room.  I strode toward Jason’s bed and flopped onto it, trying to ignore the smell of Jason on the sheets.

 

    My plan for tonight was simple.  I just had to keep catching Jason when he wasn’t surrounded by any girls.  I would be difficult to find those times, but I had to at least get by his side a couple times.  Nearly gagging on the thought, I decided I should probably be a little physical with him—only putting my arm around him or something like that, of course.  It seemed easy…  Enough.

 

    I flipped over and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my palms.  I could do this, I knew I could.  And if all else failed, there was still a party I could try to enjoy.  Maybe playing my cards right could get me out of here.

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