Leo Rising (Zodiac Guardians #3) - Tamar Sloan
“Eat my dust, sucker!” Cassandra trills as she steers Princess Daisy into first place on the screen in front of her.
“I don’t think so,” says her cousin, Julia, right before shooting a red turtle shell at her.
Princess Daisy falters as she recovers from the hit, allowing Princess Peach to take the lead and cross the finish line first.
“No! I was so close!” Cassandra huffs while still wearing a smile. She looks at her cousin. “How did you get so good at video games?”
“I’m thirteen, it’s kinda my job.” Julia rolls her eyes with a giggle.
Cassandra reaches over and ruffles the top of Julia’s head, messing up the smooth and shiny dark brown curtain that falls over her shoulders. Julia whines, but Cassandra knows she loves the attention. Julia practically worships her big cousin, and Cassandra enjoys being her role model. Julia may just be her favorite member of the family. These visits are the only times Cassandra gets to have fun at home.
“What’s all the ruckus?” Her dad walks beneath the doorway, hands tucked into the pockets of his suit slacks, a disapproving frown setting his jaw as he looks down at them.
Cassandra stiffens and her smile deflates. She hadn’t expected him home just yet.
She swallows, bracing herself. “I was just entertaining Julia with a video game.” She shrugs, as if the gesture will afford her some forgiveness.
“I kicked her butt, Uncle Richard!” Julia squeals with glee.
“Did you really?” he asks Julia, though his eyes are trained critically on Cassandra.
She can almost feel herself shrinking under that heavy, judging gaze.
“Julia, why don’t we get ready for dinner?” Cassandra suggests, desperate for an escape. “Nancy should be just about done.”
Julia nods and climbs to her feet. “I hope she made peach cobbler again.”
“Let’s go see.” Cassandra rises from the cushion she’d been using as a seat and attempts to guide Julia around her father, who remains standing in the doorway.
“Why don’t you go ahead, Julia?” her dad says, placing a halting hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. Cassandra flinches at the contact, then grinds her teeth, hoping he didn’t notice. “I need a moment with my daughter.”
Julia shrugs. “Okay.” She skips up the hall to the dining room.
Cassandra’s dad watches as the girl disappears around the corner, then turns his scrutinizing steel eyes on his daughter.
“Video games?” His tone is low and dark, making her spine go ramrod straight.
The all too familiar fear and shame ignite, and Cassandra clenches her fists at her sides.
It’s alright, girl. Just breathe. Stay in control.
“She begged me, and I saw no harm in playing for a short while,” she says, defensive. Plus, I planned to stop long before you were supposed to be home.
He steps closer, towering over her, forcing her to stumble backward. “No harm? Not only did you waste your time on frivolous games, but you lost, and to a child no less.” He speaks in a whisper, his voice so hushed that the company in the kitchen wouldn’t be able to hear.
Except it feels like he might as well be screaming at her.
Her palms tingle with the heat Cassandra’s struggling to contain, and all she can do is press her nails into her skin, repeating her inner mantra. Breathe. Stay in control…
Her father narrows his eyes and leans in so that his shadow falls over her face. “I didn’t raise a loser. Or did I?”
She shakes her head so forcefully that her blond locks whip around her face. “No, sir. I just thought letting her win would help boost her confidence.”
He snorts, his nose wrinkling with a disgusted sneer. “One doesn’t build true confidence by being handed anything. All you’re doing is setting her up for future failure. She looks up to you, Cassandra, so show her someone worthy of such admiration.”
“Yes, sir,” she says, barely audible. Her grip is so tight that her knuckles are numb.
“Excuse me?” he hisses.
She clears her throat and repeats herself with more gusto, “Yes, sir.”
Her father hovers in front of her, his gaze chipping away at her. She doesn’t exhale until he finally turns around and walks to his study, closing the door behind him.
Cassandra backs all the way into her room, uncurling her fists and flexing her fingers. She looks down at her palms. Nothing is there but the four semi-circle indents, now with a fresh tinge of pink. Over the years, they’ve formed into scars, a permanent reminder of her dirty little secret.
She wipes her palms down her thighs, as if she could wipe away the shame.