Nick Merrick is stretched to the breaking point. Keep his grades sky-high, or he'll never escape his hometown. Keep his brother's business going, or the Merricks will be out on the street. Keep the secret of where he's going in the evenings from his own twin, or he'll lose his family. Keep his mind off the hot, self-assured dancer who's supposed to be his "girlfriend's" partner.
Of course, there's also the homicidal freak Quinn has taken to hanging around and the Elemental Guide who's counting the hours until he can try once more to kill the Merrick brothers.
There's a storm coming. From all sides. And then some. Nick Merrick, can you keep it together?
Release date: January 28, 2014
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 336
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He yanked the hat back on and fed some power into the air, asking for a breeze.
The wind was overly happy to accommodate, sending a gust through the trees to scatter leaves and blow sand into the grass. Nick swore.
Quinn shivered and huddled down in her fleece pullover. “Frigging wind.”
Nick glanced at her. She was sitting on the slate stone bench his older brother had installed yesterday. “Cold? Go sit in the truck.”
“But I’m helping you.”
Nick smiled. She hadn’t left the bench since they’d gotten here. “Oh. Okay. I didn’t realize you were helping.”
“Not with the landscaping. I can barely pick those rocks up.” She turned to lie flat on the bench, letting long blond hair fall almost to the grass. She stretched one leg up to the sky. Next she’d be pulling it back toward her chest and putting her ankle next to her ear. Crazy dancer. “I’m helping you keep up illusions.”
Illusions. Nick lost the smile and flung another stone into place. “Are you sure you’re not avoiding going home?”
“Okay, so maybe we’re helping each other.”
He made a noncommittal noise and reached for another stone.
“Seriously,” said Quinn. “Your brother gave you crap for bringing me along, didn’t he?”
“Not really.” And Michael hadn’t. If Gabriel or Chris had tried to drag a girl along on a job, Michael would have pitched a fit. But Nick was the dependable one. When he’d mentioned that Quinn was riding along, his older brother hadn’t batted an eye.
Then again, Nick had told Michael a little about Quinn’s epic fights with her mom, which seemed to have gotten worse since her family’s home was destroyed in a fire. Maybe Michael was cutting her some slack, too.
“Huh,” said Quinn. “Maybe I should accidentally leave panties in your room or something.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“You sound pissed.”
Nick put another rock into place and rolled the tension from his shoulders. “I’m not. I’m just . . . you don’t need to go over the top.”
“Panties are over the top?”
He didn’t even bother answering that.
“Come on,” she said. “If you don’t want your brothers to know you’re into guys, a little lingerie left in your bedroom might be just the ticket.”
Nick slammed another rock into the sand and didn’t bother answering that, either.
Quinn was relentless. “Have you seen Adam since that night I caught you kissing?”
“No.” At least not in reality. But Quinn’s dance partner had occupied nearly every waking moment of Nick’s thoughts. And a lot of the sleeping moments, too.
Adam was the first—the only—boy he’d ever kissed.
Nick’s brothers had no idea. They still thought he was infatuated with Quinn. And Quinn was all too happy to keep up the “illusion,” as she put it.
“Have you talked to him?” Quinn pressed.
“No.” But he read over Adam’s last text message about twenty times a day.
When you know what you want, I’ll be right here.
Nick knew what he wanted, all right. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to want it. His life was already complicated enough. He reached for another stone.
“He asked about you,” said Quinn.
Nick dropped the stone on his fingers. He swore again and flexed them to ease the pain. “Yeah?”
“He asked how you were doing.”
Nick didn’t say anything, just rocked the stone into place.
“Hmm,” said Quinn. “What did I tell him about you . . . ?”
Nick’s heart tripped and stumbled along. He waited.
Finally, he looked up. “There’s a pool around back. Don’t think I won’t drop you in it.”
Quinn smiled, but it was a little cautious, a little sad. “He asked if you’d be coming with me to the studio anytime soon.”
She meant the dance studio at the Y, where he’d first met Adam. Nick enjoyed watching Quinn dance, and he loved the way music coursed through the air to seep into his skin. Then he’d seen Adam, and it was like a missing puzzle piece finally snapped into place.
He’d loved watching Adam dance, too.
Nick grabbed a hand roller and flattened the next expanse of sand. “I don’t want to be a distraction.”
“I think you need a little distraction.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you’re completely stressed out.” Quinn rolled off the bench and walked behind him, putting her hands on his shoulders. She dug her thumbs into the muscles there. It almost hurt, but it felt good, too, so he didn’t stop her.
“Quinn, it’s fine. I have a lot on my mind.”
Like the fact that he and his brothers were still marked for death for the Elemental abilities they struggled to control.
Or the fact that a bunch of younger Elementals had nearly destroyed the town a week ago.
Or maybe that the Guide who’d come to town to kill them all was sitting in a jail cell, and could be released at any time.
Not to mention the stack of college responses hidden in his desk at home. Or his family’s struggling landscaping business, which was barely turning a profit now, to say nothing of getting through the winter.
Oh, and the fact that he was gay, and one of the only two people who knew was sitting right here ragging on him about it.
“Why don’t you come to the studio tonight?” she said.
“I have a physics test tomorrow. I need to study.”
“Please. Like you couldn’t pass that in your sleep. And if you really needed to study, why aren’t your brothers doing this job?”
Nick shook her hands off and reached for another stone. “Hannah was off tonight, and Mike needed a break. I offered.”
“Of course you did.” She paused. “And Gabriel? Chris?”
“Busy, and busy.” His youngest brother, Chris, had plans with his girlfriend. And Gabriel, his twin, was trying to catch up on math so he could apply for firefighter school in the spring.
“Come on,” said Quinn. “You know you want to.”
He did want to. A lot.
A lot more than he wanted to admit.
Too complicated. He shook his head.
“Come on,” said Quinn. “You could bring your textbook. Wear some glasses. He’d probably think it was sexy.”
Nick told himself to stop imagining it.
Quinn grinned. “Nicholas Merrick. You are blushing.”
“Seriously. Pool. Out back. Get ready to be all wet.”
“If you don’t come with me, I’m going to tell him to stop pining, because you’re not interested.”
“You are not going to tell him that.”
“Yes. I am. In fact—” She pulled out her cell phone. “I’m going to tell him right now.”
Her hands were flying across the keys. Nick was on his feet yanking it out of her hands before he even knew he was moving. She didn’t fight him.
Then he looked down at what she’d typed. Not a message to Adam. A message to him.
You deserve a break, too, Nick.
He sighed. “I don’t know.”
Her voice gentled. “I know you still like him.” She paused. “It’s not a date. It’s an hour in the studio.”
An hour watching Adam dance. He’d almost come undone the first time. But eager butterflies were hanging streamers for a party in his stomach. “All right. I’ll come with you.”
“Yay!” She clapped.
“You seem overly enthusiastic. Like you said, it’s an hour in the studio. Nothing might happen.”
“Oh, it’s not that.” She smiled sweetly. “Really, I needed a ride.”
Nick grabbed her and flung her over his shoulder. “That’s it. Pool.”
She laughed. “You’re excited. Come on. Admit it.”
He set her on her feet, but didn’t let her go. Up close, he could look into the blue of her eyes. She was very pretty, with enough curves to draw attention. She whined about being fat all the time, but dance kept her body toned and muscled.
After catching him with Adam, she’d offered to continue playing the role of his girlfriend. It let him keep his secret from his brothers, but it also kept her from going out and meeting a guy who would care about what she had to offer.
This whole setup was so wrong. “I hate using you,” he said.
“Do you want to have an epic breakup?”
“You deserve to date a guy who likes you.”
“So do you.”
Nick clamped his mouth shut and turned back to the path, slapping the next stone into place.
“We can stop if you want,” said Quinn. “I’ll go back to nightly screaming matches with my mother, you go back to screwing easy girls so you look like a total player.”
“Quinn. I was not—”
“Maybe you weren’t sleeping with them, but you were using them just the same.” At his fierce look, she gave him one right back. “They might not have known the truth about you, but it doesn’t make it any different.”
“I wasn’t using them.”
“Yes. You were.”
Yes. He was. Nick looked at the rock in his hands, then shoved it into line with the others.
“It’s not going to go away, Nick!” cried Quinn. “If you don’t want to pretend with me, that’s fine. But it’s not fair to pretend with anyone else, either.”
She was right. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair.
“What are you thinking?” said Quinn. “That you’ll break up with me and find some new skank who’ll keep your cover more effectively?”
“Fine. Go ahead. I’ll go find my own ride.” She stood and stormed toward the road.
Nick caught her before she could get too far. Quinn had a history of making poor decisions. Ending up unconscious on the beach with a few drunken bikers was only the most recent. She was lucky he’d found her before anything else could happen.
“Stop,” he said. “Stop.”
He expected to find her expression distraught, but instead she looked challenging. “Why are you stopping me?”
“Because you’re my friend.”
“You’re mine, too.” She reached up to give the brim of his hat a yank. “Have you ever thought about just . . . telling your brothers?”
He sighed and looked away. He thought about it all the time. Then he’d remember the thousand-and-one locker room gay jokes he’d heard from his twin. He’d remember Gabriel’s swift and brutal judgment of anything new. Gabriel knew how to cut right to the quick, and this felt so fragile and untested that Nick was afraid to bare skin in the face of that blade.
Then there was Michael, overworked and overwrought, who’d said last week that he couldn’t handle one more complication in their lives. Nick did the bookkeeping for their landscaping business—they could practically reach out and touch their bottom line.
That left Chris, brooding and distant, who might be okay with it—or he might not.
They couldn’t afford discord right now.
“Things at home—they’re complicated . . .” he started. Then he caught her eyes. His things at home had nothing on hers. “I don’t want to rock the boat,” he finally said.
“What about Hunter?” she said. “Are you guys still sharing a room?”
“Yeah, until we figure out a new sleeping arrangement. And seriously, you think I should start with my roommate, who, gee, happens to be my twin brother’s best friend? You’re right, Quinn. That’s a great idea.” He left her and went back to the path. At least slinging flagstone gave him a way to work off frustration.
Quinn came back to the bench and resumed stretching. “Is that weird for you? Sharing a room with a guy?”
“I shared a room with Gabriel for the first twelve years of my life.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
Nick rolled more sand flat. “No,” he said, his tone resigned. “It’s not weird. At least not for me.”
“You think it would be for him?”
Nick had no idea. He didn’t say anything.
“Tell me,” said Quinn. “Does he have tattoos and piercings all over his body, or what? Though I can’t decide whether that would be hot or disgusting—”
Nick threw a handful of sand at her.
But really, he had no answer. He was so well practiced in the art of Do Not Look at Other Guys that he kept his head in a book anytime Hunter was even in the room.
And Hunter totally wasn’t his type anyway.
“I’ll stop pushing,” said Quinn.
“But you’re definitely coming tonight.”
“Oh, you can’t back out now. I already texted Adam that you’ll be there.”
His head swung around. “You what?”
“He’s looking forward to it. See?” She held up her phone. A smiley face.
A smiley face? Nick had no idea what that meant. Was that casual happy? Excited happy? An obligatory response that didn’t mean anything? It wasn’t even a D smiley. It was one of the parenthesis ones.
God, he was trying to puzzle out the hidden meaning of the punctuation in a frigging emoticon.
“You look nervous,” said Quinn.
She got down on her knees next to him in the grass. “Don’t be nervous,” she said quietly. “He really likes you, Nick.”
Nick knew that.
And that was the problem. He really liked him back.
Quinn thought Nick Merrick was the best boyfriend in the world.
He’d been pretty sweet before she found out he was gay, but now . . . now she knew he liked her for her, when all the other guys she’d ever dated took every opportunity to get into her pants.
It seemed fitting that the best relationship in her life would be just as dysfunctional as all her other ones. Her alcoholic mother. Her more-absent-than-not father. Her stoner older brother and her video game–obsessed younger brother. The cheerleaders who hated her, the dance team that didn’t want her—if a gay boyfriend was the best she could do, she’d take it.
He worried he was using her—well, she worried she was using him. Hanging out with Nick gave her an opportunity to avoid her own family. And Becca, too, if you got right down to it.
Quinn didn’t resent losing her best friend to Chris Merrick. Much.
“You’re quiet,” said Nick.
Quinn glanced over. He was driving the landscaping truck with one hand on the wheel, the other arm across the seat backs.
For one second, she regretted the whole gay thing and wished she could curl up against him, let his arm wrap around her shoulder and make her feel wanted.
Then she told that moment of longing to shove it.
“I was thinking about Becca,” she said.
“She and Chris seem to be getting pretty serious.” He seemed amused.
She snorted. “Like a heart attack.”
He was silent for a moment. “You guys aren’t hanging out much lately?”
Nick could always see right through her. Quinn shrugged. “It’s fine. I’m glad she’s happy.”
“And you sound so sincere about it.”
Quinn hit him on the arm. “No. I am. I just . . . miss her, you know? And I’m . . .”
Jealous. She was jealous.
But she couldn’t say that.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I shouldn’t have brought up Becca. She’s just spending all this time with Chris, and I get it, but she doesn’t talk to me anymore. I don’t think she’s hiding something, but it’s almost like she’s got this new life that I’m not a part of. If that makes any sense.”
Nick sighed. “Yeah, Quinn, it actually makes a lot of sense.” He hit the turn signal for their street. “Did you tell Becca about me?”
“Of course not! God, what kind of friend do you think I am?”
He held up a hand. “I’m just saying—maybe you both have secrets.”
He dropped his arm to give her half a hug—totally platonic, and nothing she really wanted. But she took the comfort all the same.
“You’re a good friend,” he said. “That’s the kind I think you are.”
Quinn straightened and studied him. Nick really was a looker—all dark hair and blue eyes and broad shoulders. Muscled arms from all the landscaping. Just enough freckles sprinkled across those high cheekbones to make him look boyish and charming.
Then again, his twin brother had those same freckles, and there was nothing boyish and charming about him.
“Actually,” Nick said slowly, “it’s probably time I should tell you another secret—” He broke off, his voice hardening to steel. “Damn it.”
Quinn followed his gaze. They were turning up his driveway, and a blond guy was making his way down the walk from their house. The guy looked pissed.
“Who’s that?” she said.
“Tyler Morgan. He’s an asshole.” Nick threw the truck into park and hesitated there, glaring at the guy as he walked toward them.
Tyler’s expression was full of fury. He said something, but Quinn couldn’t hear him over the diesel engine with the windows closed.
Then Nick killed the engine just as Tyler turned his gaze on Quinn.
“—with your stupid, white trash girlfriend,” he finished.
Quinn froze. Oh no, he did not.
“Wait here,” said Nick.
No way was she waiting here. Quinn threw herself out of the truck. This Tyler guy was a lot bigger than he’d looked when she was sitting in the cab of the pickup, but he could be fifty feet tall and she wouldn’t give a crap.
“What did you just call me?” she demanded.
Nick appeared at her side. “Quinn, go in the house.”
Tyler sneered down at her—a shame, because he might be kind of attractive if he weren’t trying so hard to look like a prick. “You heard me. I called you a stupid—”
Quinn punched him.
She shocked the hell out of him, too. He was probably one of those jerks who thought girls roamed the earth for nothing more than his pleasure. But she’d been holding her own for years, and the punch knocked him back. She knew how to swing, and she sure as hell wasn’t holding back with this tool.
“At least trashy girls know how to hit.” She drew back a fist to hit him again.
Nick got hold of her. “Jesus, Quinn. Stop it.”
“That’s right,” said Tyler, his voice a little nasal. “I forgot you Merrick douche bags like to let your girls fight for you.”
“Get the hell out of here,” said Nick. He had a death grip on her arms, his hands full of tension. The air was suddenly ice cold.
“Let me go,” she said. “I want to make sure he can’t pass on his genes.”
“No worries, blondie. Seeing you is enough to turn me off forever.”
“Right back atcha, dickhead,” Quinn snapped.
Then Tyler stepped toward her, drawing back a fist. She sucked back into Nick.
But Tyler stopped there. He smirked. “Yeah, all you girls think you’re so tough, but then you can’t take—”
His words cut short like he ran out of breath. No puffs of steam escaped from his mouth, though hers and Nick’s were going a mile a minute. Tyler shook his head fiercely, and then put a hand to his throat.
His eyes started to bug out, and he dropped to a knee.
Had he inhaled a fly? Was he choking? What was happening?
“Get out of here, Tyler.” Nick’s voice was quiet, low and full of intensity. “No deal, nothing to stop me. Understand?”
Quinn had no idea what that meant, but Tyler was on his knees, suffocating on nothing. Nick’s hands were gripping her arms so tightly she could feel faint tremors, belying the strength in his voice.
Was Nick afraid of this guy?
She kicked Tyler. “Yeah, asshole. Get out of here.”
He nodded hard, his hand pulling at his throat now.
And then he was gasping, coughing, his hands on the pavement.
“Come on,” said Nick, letting her go but taking her hand to drag her with him. Probably making sure she didn’t lay into Tyler again.
“Don’t be stupid,” Tyler choked from behind them. “I only came here to talk.”
“Sure you did.” Nick dragged her up the steps to the front door, then jammed his key in the lock.
“What really happened at the carnival last week?” Tyler yelled. “I heard the news about pentagrams. Another Guide came here, didn’t he?”
Nick ignored him and hauled her through the door, then slammed it, throwing the deadbolt for good measure.
Then he put his head against the door and unclenched his fists.
Quinn stared at him. Their breath still fogged in the air as if the heat in the house wasn’t working. Gooseflesh had sprung up along her forearms, and she shivered. “You want to tell me what just happened there?”
“Yeah.” Nick turned his head to look at her. “That’s the rest of my secret.”
Quinn sat backward on Nick’s desk chair and watched him fidget. He was sitting on the end of his bed, twisting his ball cap between his hands. A sudden noise would probably send him sky high.
No one else saw this side of Nicholas Merrick. She’d always thought he had his life perfectly in order, with a college plan and a handle on everything. When they’d first started dating, she’d thought she’d finally found the perfect boy to latch on to.
Then she’d caught him kissing Adam, and there went that.
“I’m still waiting for your secret,” she whispered mockingly.
His eyes flicked up to meet hers. “I know.” He paused, running a hand through his hair. “I’ve never told anyone, and I’m not sure where to start.”
“Wait. Don’t tell me. You’re gay.”
He flung the hat at her. Quinn uncurled it and pulled it on her head backward. “Why don’t you tell me about the idiot in your driveway. His name is Tyler?”
“Tyler Morgan.” He hesitated. “His parents hated my parents. So much that Tyler grew up hating us. He used to go to school with Michael, but he’s a few years younger.” Another pause. “Tyler used to have a sister named Emily. She was in Michael’s class. She died in the old rock quarry south of Severna Park. There was a rock slide and she drowned.”
“Five years ago. I don’t know a lot of the details, but Tyler thinks Michael had something to do with it.”
Quinn sat up straight. “Holy shit. Like . . . how? Like he built a bomb or something?”
Nick shook his head quickly. “No—nothing like that. Michael has . . . he has . . . we have this affinity for the—” He cut himself off and rolled his eyes. “Jesus, this is impossible. Everything sounds ridiculous, and I want you to believe me.”
She studied him, trying to puzzle this out for herself.
She was coming up with nothing.
Abruptly Nick stood and seized her by the hand. “Come on. We need to go outside. This will work better with show-and-tell.”
He trudged through the woods, dragging her behind him. She could feel the tension in his grip. Whatever his secret was, it had him keyed up. The sun had already begun to dip behind the horizon, letting a chill seep into the air.
“Keep walking,” he said. “I need some distance from the neighborhood.”
“Your secret is in the woods?” said Quinn, shivering. “Dude, if you turn into a werewolf, I am outta here.”
He smiled, then stopped and turned to face her. “I’m not a werewolf.”
“Vampire? Alien?” She snapped her fingers. “Harry Potter. Or wait, you’d be one of the Weasley twins . . .”
“If you could shut up a second, I’d tell you.”
“Should I hold your hands? Are we going to phase out and appear in Narnia?”
“No.” He glanced around. “If any trees fall, I don’t want them to hit a house.”
Trees falling? What? “So you’re secretly Paul Bunyan?”
She shivered again. “What? Seriously, Nick, what’s out here?”
“Air.” As he said the word, the breeze kicked up, finding a true wind that ruffled his hair and swirled between them. Leaves shifted and rustled along the ground.
Quinn frowned. “Air?”
Nick nodded. His expression said that she was missing something important.
But . . . air? Air was everywhere.
Leaves lifted from the ground and began to spiral around their feet. She started to shiver again—but then the leaves swirled off the ground, forming a moving wall to enclose them. First two feet high, then three, then eye level.
Quinn felt the first lick of fear. She moved closer to him—then wondered if that was worse than moving away. “You’re freaking me out a little, Nick. Is the mother ship landing?”
“Relax.” He spoke gently, confidently. “It’s just wind.”
She stepped away from him, but not too far. The swirling leaves remained out of her reach, and the wind caught her blond hair and tossed it across her face. “Are you doing this?”
“I’m feeding it energy.”
She looked at him again. “I don’t understand.”
“I can control air. Wind. Atmosphere. Whatever you want to call it.” He paused. “That’s how I choked Tyler.”
Quinn put a hand out. Leaves caught against her palm immediately, crumbling before getting swept into the maelstrom again. It wasn’t enough to disturb this mini-tornado. A bare path appeared on the ground where the wind continued to whip in a circle.
“You’re telling me you’re doing this all by yourself?” said Quinn. “No machine? No—”
“All me,” he said. “But the wind is willing.”
She turned to look at him again. “Okay. Make it stop.”
He didn’t move, but she felt the change. The wind in the clearing died. Leaves spun wildly and fluttered to the ground.
Quinn jammed her hands in her pockets and stood a few feet back from him. Her brain couldn’t wrap itself around this quickly enough. She wasn’t sure she wanted to believe him yet. This was a little too . . . weird. “So . . . what? Your brother blew that girl off a cliff?”
Nick’s eyes widened. “What? No. He’s not—Michael’s not an Air. He’s an Earth.”
Quinn licked her lips. “Do I need a twenty-sided die here, Nick?”
“Would you stop making jokes? I’m trying to explain this to you, and you’re—”
“Freak. . .
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