Gabriel has always had his brothers to rely on, especially his twin, Nick. But when an arsonist starts wreaking havoc on their town, all the signs point to Gabriel . . . except he's not doing it.
And no one seems to believe him. No one but a shy sophomore named Layne, a brainiac who dresses in turtlenecks and jeans . . . and keeps him totally off balance. Layne understands family problems, and she understands secrets. She has a few of her own.
Gabriel can't let her guess about his brothers, his abilities, and the danger that's right at his heels. But there are some risks he can't help taking.
Release date: October 24, 2011
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 368
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He had a lighter in his pocket, but that always felt like cheating. He should be able to call flame to something this dry. The damn thing had been stuck in the corner of his window screen since last winter. But the leaf only seemed interested in flaking onto his trigonometry textbook.
He was seriously ready to take the lighter to that.
A knock sounded on his bedroom wall.
“Black,” he called. Nicky always slept late, always knocked on his wall to ask what color he was wearing. If he didn’t, they ended up dressing alike.
Gabriel looked back at the leaf—and it was just that, a dead leaf. No hint of power. Behind the drywall, electricity sang to him. In the lamp on his desk, he could sense the burning filament. Even the weak threads of sunlight that managed to burn through the clouds left some trace of his element. If the power was there, Gabriel could speak to it, ask it to bend to his will.
If the power wasn’t, he had nothing.
His door swung open. Nick stood there in a green hoodie and a pair of khaki cargo shorts. A girl on the cheer squad had once asked Gabriel if having a twin was like looking in a mirror all the time. He’d asked her if being a cheerleader was like being an idiot all the time—but really, it was a good question. He and Nick shared the same dark hair, the same blue eyes, the same few freckles across their cheekbones.
Right now, Nick leaned on a crutch, a knee brace strapped around his left leg, evidence of the only thing they didn’t share: a formerly broken leg.
Gabriel glanced away from that. “Hey.”
“What are you doing?”
Gabriel flicked the leaf into the wastebasket beneath his desk. “Nothing. You ready for school?”
“Is that your trig book?”
“Yeah. Just making sure I told you the right assignment.”
Gabriel always attempted his math homework—and then handed it over for Nick to do it right. Math had turned into a foreign language somewhere around fifth grade. Then, Gabriel had struggled through, managing Cs when his twin brought home As. But in seventh grade, when their parents died, he’d come close to failing. Nick started covering for him, and he’d been doing it ever since.
Not like it was a big challenge. Math came to Nick like breathing. He was in second-year calculus, earning college credit. Gabriel was stuck in trigonometry with juniors.
He was pretty frigging sick of it.
Gabriel flipped the book closed and shoved it into his backpack. His eyes fell on that knee brace again. Two days ago, his twin’s leg had been broken in three places.
“You’re not going to make me carry your crap all day, are you?” His voice came out sharp, nowhere near the light ribbing he’d intended.
Nick took it in stride, as usual. “Not if you’re going to cry about it.” He turned toward the stairs, his voice rising to a mocking falsetto. “I’m the school sports hero, but I can’t possibly carry a few extra books—”
“Keep it up,” Gabriel called, slinging the backpack over his shoulder to follow his brother. “I’ll push you down the stairs.”
But he hesitated in the doorway, listening to Nick’s hitching steps as he descended the staircase, the creak of the banister as it supported his weight.
Gabriel knew he should help. He should probably be taking the place of that crutch. That’s what Nick would do for him.
But he couldn’t force himself through the doorway.
That broken leg had been his fault. Thank god Nick could pull power from the air, an element in abundance. He probably wouldn’t even need the brace by the end of the week.
And then Gabriel wouldn’t need to stare at the evidence of his own poor judgment.
He and his brothers had always been targeted for their Elemental abilities. Being pure Elementals, they should have been put to death as soon as they came into their powers. Luckily, their parents had struck a deal with the weaker Elementals in town.
A deal that had led to their parents’ deaths.
Their oldest brother, Michael, had been able to keep the deal in place—until a few weeks ago, when Tyler and Seth, two of the other Elemental kids in town, had attacked Chris. It started a snowball of events that led to an Elemental Guide coming to town to do away with the Merrick brothers for good.
He’d almost succeeded, too. After the Homecoming dance, they’d been attacked.
They’d fought back the only way they knew how. But Gabriel had let Nick call storms that were too strong. He’d begged his twin for more power. When Nick fell, the accident had practically shattered his leg—if they weren’t full Elementals, he probably would have needed surgery.
That night, Gabriel couldn’t keep him safe. The Guide had kidnapped Nick and Chris, had held them prisoner.
Becca and Hunter had found them. But Gabriel couldn’t do anything. Ineffective and out of control, just like always.
But now they were safe, and things were back to normal. Nick was his usual self. Life’s good. Move on. No use complaining. He hadn’t even said a word about what had happened on the field.
As far as Gabriel was concerned, he didn’t need to.
Just like with math, Nick was used to his twin being a failure.
Gabriel pulled onto Becca Chandler’s street and glanced in the rearview mirror at his younger brother. Chris was chewing on his thumbnail, leaning against the window.
“Nervous?” said Gabriel.
Chris looked away from the window and glared at him. “No.”
Nick turned in his seat. “Make sure you open the door for her. Girls eat that crap up.”
“Nah,” said Gabriel. “Play it cool. Make her work for it—”
“For god’s sake,” Chris snapped. “She just broke up with Hunter, like, yesterday, so it’s not like that. Okay?”
Jesus. Someone was worked up. Gabriel glanced back again. “But she asked you for a ride.”
Chris looked back out the window. “I offered.”
Nick turned his head to look at his twin. “Very nervous,” he whispered.
Gabriel smiled and turned into Becca’s driveway. “Very.”
“Would you two shut up?”
Becca was waiting on the front step, her arms around her knees and her hands drawn up into the sleeves of a fleece pullover, dark hair hanging down her back.
“She looks upset,” said Nick.
She did, her eyes dark and shadowed, her shoulders hunched. Or maybe she was just cold. Gabriel wasn’t one for figuring out emotion.
Her face brightened when she saw them, and she sprinted for the car almost before Chris had time to jump out and hold the door for her.
She stopped short in front of him, spots of pink on her cheeks. “Hey,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“Hey,” Chris said back, his voice soft and low.
Then they just stood there breathing at each other.
Gabriel hit the horn.
They jumped apart—but Chris punched him in the shoulder when he climbed back into the car.
Becca buckled her seat belt. “I’m glad you’re all here.”
Her voice was full of anxiety. So Nick had been right.
Chris shifted to look at her. “You all right?”
She shook her head. “My dad just called. He wants to meet with me. Tonight.”
No one said anything for a moment, leaving her words floating in the warm confines of the car.
Her dad was the Elemental Guide who’d been sent to kill them all.
When they escaped and didn’t hear anything for two days, they’d all started to think he’d run off again, the way he had when Becca was eleven.
Chris took a breath, and his voice was careful. “Do you want to meet with him?”
Gabriel glanced at her in the rearview mirror. She was practically hunched against the door, staring out the window. “I want him to get the hell out of here.”
Chris was still watching her. “He is your father.” He paused. “You sure?”
“He might have made a ‘contribution,’ but that man is not my father.”
“I want to see him,” said Gabriel. His shoulders already felt tight.
She hesitated. “Wait. You’d . . . go with me?”
“Yeah. I owe him a little payback.”
“We,” said Nick. There was heat in his voice, too.
“Did he say why he wanted to meet?” asked Chris.
“He said he wants to help us. That they’ll send another Guide if he doesn’t report back that you were . . . um . . .”
“Killed.” Gabriel hit the turn signal at the end of her road.
She swallowed. “Yeah. Hey, make a left. We need to pick up Quinn.”
Gabriel glanced at her again. He wasn’t a big fan of Becca’s best friend, so the last thing he wanted to do was pick her up— especially when there was so much left to talk about. “Anyone else?” he said. “Should I pick up Hunter, too?”
Becca faltered and glanced at Chris. “I’m sorry . . . I should have asked—”
“It’s fine,” he said, and Gabriel could feel his youngest brother’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’m sure he’s not intentionally being a dick.”
Gabriel ignored him. “What time tonight? Did he say where?”
“Annapolis Mall. Eight o’clock. Make a right at the stop sign. She’s down at the end of the block.”
“He wants to meet at the mall?” said Nick.
“Food court,” said Becca. “I told him it had to be somewhere public.”
“Great,” said Gabriel. “More people in the line of fire.”
“Do you think the mall was a mistake?” said Becca.
Gabriel shrugged. Her father hadn’t hesitated to put normal people in danger last week.
But really, what difference did it make?
They were pulling alongside the curb, and Quinn threw open the door and launched herself inside. Blond hair was caught inside her jacket, and her backpack was barely zipped. Notebooks spilled onto the floorboards before she could get the door shut.
“Jesus, drive,” Quinn said, hitting the back of his seat. “God, I hate my mother.”
She was just so frigging overdramatic. Gabriel pulled the car away from the curb, deliberately moving as slowly as possible.
But Nick turned his head to look at her over his shoulder. “Everything all right?”
Quinn shoved the notebooks back into her bag and yanked the zipper. “I’m stuck living with Satan. When’s the car situation going to improve, Bex? I can’t keep doing this.”
Nick was still looking into the backseat. “We can keep driving you to school, if you need a ride.”
Quinn stopped fighting with her things and looked up at him. “Really?”
“We’d love it,” said Gabriel, making sure his sarcasm carried an edge. “Maybe we can pick up half the junior class.”
“What is with you?” said Chris.
“Don’t worry,” said Quinn. “I already know he’s an ass.”
“Love you, too,” said Gabriel.
But Nick grinned. “You can tell us apart?”
“Please. When you’re talking, there’s no challenge.” She punched the back of Gabriel’s seat again.
He glared at her in the rearview mirror. “What are you, six years old?”
“Oh, you don’t like that? What about this?” She licked her finger and stuck it in his ear.
He smacked her hand away. He’d never punched a girl, but she might be the first.
Becca laughed. “Quinn has two brothers.”
“I know all the ways to irritate a boy,” Quinn said.
Gabriel snorted. “I don’t doubt that one bit.”
The day started with U.S. History and English, two classes Gabriel couldn’t give a crap about. He kept thinking about Becca’s father, how they were going to sit in the food court and have a conversation with the guy.
Now her father wanted to help. Yeah, right.
The Homecoming dance wasn’t the first time the Guide had nearly killed them. Gabriel could still remember the explosion that had taken out the bridge two blocks from school—and almost killed Gabriel. The fire hadn’t hurt him, but concrete didn’t make for a soft landing.
And then there was the way the Guide had attacked them on the soccer field. The way he’d taken Nick, broken leg and all.
The way Gabriel hadn’t been able to stop him.
His pencil snapped in his hand.
The fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed, making the teacher pause in her lecture and glance up.
Gabriel took a deep breath. He needed to get a handle on his temper before he set the whole school on fire.
Chris and Nick were lucky. Chris could carry a bottle of water with him and be close to his element. And Nick—hell, air was everywhere. He’d have a harder time getting away from it. Even Michael spent his days playing in the dirt, perfect for an Earth Elemental.
Natural energy was all around. But it was weak. Controlled. Filtered sunlight, electrical wiring contained behind layers of rubber and plastic. All it did was make him crave more—and Gabriel couldn’t exactly walk around with a candle.
Third period: Trigonometry. Gabriel felt his shoulders tighten as he walked through the doorway. Mr. Riley, their wiry teacher, wasn’t at his desk yet, but Gabriel dropped his homework in the basket and made his way to the third seat in his row. He usually spent this hour riding a line of tension to make sure he didn’t get called on. This was a junior-level class, but luckily he sat next to that advanced sophomore chick who raised her hand for just about every question. Gabriel pulled his notebook out of his backpack, but he’d snapped his only pencil in English.
Not like it mattered. What was he going to do, doodle?
Taylor Morrissey, another senior stuck in here, sat on the desk in front of him, her feet on the chair. Blond hair swung over her shoulder and perfectly accented her chest. Her skirt was so short it flared around her on the desk and put Gabriel at eye level with just about everything.
He knew she’d be giving the same show to any guy around, but it was tough to look up from that. “Hey, Taylor.”
“You going out for basketball this week?”
“Don’t I always?” Sports were his one saving grace, the only reason he bothered to keep his grades up. Being active took the edge off, let him run down energy that looked for things to burn in other ways.
Taylor leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees and giving him a clear view down her shirt, too. “Me and the other girls are going to think up something special for the seniors this year.” She looked at him from under her lashes. “Any ideas?”
Usually, he could do this banter stuff all day. But he was already exhausted from plotting to destroy Becca’s father, and he didn’t feel like playing. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
She frowned a little, then flipped her hair. “Heather’s parents are going away this weekend, and we’re thinking of having a little party after the tryouts. They’ve got that hot tub, and it’s just getting cold enough to use the fire pit. . . .”
Fire. The thought was more alluring than anything she was showing off. “Count me in,” he said.
Now she smiled, but it looked a little feral, the way a cat might smile at a trapped mouse. “Maybe you could—” She broke off and glanced sideways, her voice sharpening to a point. “Do you mind?”
Gabriel glanced right. That sophomore jerked her eyes back to her paper, her cheeks flushed. “Sorry.”
“Ohmigod,” Taylor whispered, leaning in conspiratorially. “She was totally staring at me. What a freaking lesbo.”
Sharp heels clicked into the classroom, a tall woman in a business suit bustling through the door to drop a briefcase on the desk. Dark hair was pulled into an honest-to-god bun, and it wasn’t doing her face any favors.
“Sorry, class,” she said. “I’m Ms. Anderson, and I’ll be filling in for Mr. Riley. This school is a maze—” Her eyes fell on Taylor, who was practically straddling the desk. “Maybe we could all take our seats?”
Taylor heaved a sigh and climbed off the desk, making a show of sliding into her chair.
Gabriel slouched in his own. At least they’d watch a movie or get a free period or something.
“Since Mr. Riley’s mother is ill,” Ms. Anderson said, “this might be a long-term solution, so if you’re looking forward to a free period . . .”
Now Gabriel heaved a sigh.
“I think we’ll start with a pop quiz,” said Ms. Anderson. “So I can get a feel for where you all are—”
“We just had a test last week,” whined Andy Cunningham, rocking back in his chair.
They had. Gabriel hadn’t taken it. He’d traded places with Nick.
“Ms. Anderson?” Taylor raised her hand, her voice dripping with sugar. “I know you’re new here and all, but Mr. Riley doesn’t give pop quizzes.”
“That may be the case, but it’s a nice way for me to see where you all stand. These quizzes won’t go against you,” she said. “It’s just for my purposes, so I can see what your strengths are.”
Gabriel wiped his palms on his jeans.
He should go to the bathroom and not come back.
Yeah, that would be subtle.
Ms. Anderson stood at the front of each row and started passing out sheets of Xeroxed paper. Two pages, double sided.
Gabriel took a deep breath. He could do this.
He didn’t even have a pencil. He shoved his hand into his backpack. Gum. Car keys. A yellow highlighter. His spare lighter—he was tempted to take that to the quiz sitting on his desk.
He glanced up at the sophomore. He’d been sitting next to her for six weeks and had no idea what her name was. She didn’t help things by remaining completely nondescript. Mouse brown hair in a loose braid down her back, simple gray turtleneck, and no-brand jeans. Her features were soft and young and makeup-free behind a pair of glasses.
“Hey, Brainiac,” he said. “Can you hook me up with a pencil?”
She didn’t look up.
“Hey,” he said again.
Were her cheeks turning pink? Whatever, she didn’t look up.
His irritation flared. “Hey,” he said. “Got a pencil, Four-Eyes? What are you, deaf?”
Her head snapped around. “No. And my name isn’t ‘Four-Eyes’ or ‘Brainiac.’ ” But she flipped her pencil at him, then bent to get another one from her backpack.
He rolled his eyes and looked at the paper.
Question 1. Change 5π/12 radians to degrees.
He had to wipe his hands on his jeans again. He’d go back to that one.
Question 2. Given that sin x = ¼ and x is in Quadrant II, find the exact values of sin2x and cos2x.
WTF. He looked at this every day, and it was still like reading Chinese.
He heard something snap.
His pencil. He’d broken another one in half.
Brainiac whipped her head around. What was her problem?
He glared back at his paper. The sub had said it didn’t count. But he couldn’t exactly hand in a blank test.
He had no idea what they’d do if he failed. What if they asked him to take another one? If they figured out Nick was taking his tests for him, they’d kick him off every team for sure.
They’d tell Michael.
Now he had a quarter of a pencil. Other students were looking at him.
Gabriel took a deep breath. He could do this.
He could do this.
He put the pencil nub against the paper and tried to work through each problem.
It was the longest thirty minutes of his life. He didn’t even get to the last three.
“Okay, I think that’s enough time,” said Ms. Anderson.
Thank god. He didn’t feel this worn out after long runs around the soccer field.
“Now exchange papers with the person beside you for grading.”
He snapped his head up.
The sophomore was already holding out her paper, not even looking at him. He took it but didn’t relinquish his own. The tests sat side by side, one neat and perfectly ordered, one a complete fucking mess.
Brainiac sighed and reached out to grab his test, snatching it back to her desk.
Gabriel chewed on the end of the pencil nub. It hurt his lip. He could pick a fight. Get sent to the office. Alan Hulster sat to his left, and that guy was a tool. Gabriel wouldn’t even mind laying into him.
He glanced to his right. That sophomore was staring at him, her brow furrowed. She licked her lips. “These are all wrong,” she whispered.
Like he needed her to tell him that. He looked back at her test. Ms. Anderson was reading off the answers, one by one, and of course Brainiac had gotten every one right.
Her name was written in perfect script at the top. Layne Forrest.
Why the hell couldn’t he remember a name like Layne Forrest?
He should punch Hulster now, before papers were handed forward.
“Hey,” Layne whispered again.
He glanced over. “What?”
She flinched a little, then whispered, “You got a ninety-two on the test last week. I saw.”
Of course he had. He would have gotten a perfect score, but Nick usually answered some wrong on purpose.
He glared at her, hoping it would make her back down. “Yeah? And?”
It worked. She recoiled and looked back at his paper.
But then he saw her slowly turn her pencil around and start erasing.
She did it subtly, artfully, so her pencil was barely moving, and her eyes were intent on the front of the room.
And then she was writing.
What was she doing?
He couldn’t figure it out. Then Ms. Anderson was calling for the papers to be passed forward and telling them to use the rest of the time as a free period while she reviewed them.
“Hey,” he whispered.
Layne didn’t turn her head, just pulled a slim paperback out of her book bag and started reading.
He flicked a broken piece of pencil her way. It hit her on the arm.
She sighed and looked over. “Seriously?”
“What did you do?”
Her cheeks turned pink again. She looked back at the book. Her voice was so small he almost didn’t hear her.
“You got an eighty.”
She’d fixed his test?
Gabriel couldn’t decide whether he was furious or giddy with relief. “Why?” he snapped. “Why would you do that?”
The substitute cleared her throat near the front of the room. “Is there a problem?”
“No.” Damn, his voice was breaking. He coughed. “Sorry.”
When the bell rang, Layne bolted.
Gabriel wasn’t on four sports teams for nothing. He blocked her in the hall, cornering her against the lockers. She was a tiny thing, at least ten inches shorter than he was.
“Why did you do that?” he said.
She looked up at him, her binder clutched protectively against her chest. Her voice was still soft, quiet, somehow carrying over the students in the between-class rush. “Your brother took your test for you, didn’t he?”
Gabriel felt hot, flushed, even though it was the truth. For some reason it was humiliating to have her figure it out.
He put a hand against the locker beside her head and leaned in. “Are you going to tell anyone?”
She swallowed. “You bully everyone who helps you?”
He snatched his hand away. Was that what he looked like?
“Hey, man.” A voice spoke at his shoulder. “You all right?”
Gabriel jerked back. He’d been so close to her.
Hunter stood there, a navy backpack slung over his shoulder. That white streak interrupted his sandy blond hair and hung across one eye, leaving the other wide and full of scrutiny.
Hunter’s father had been a Guide, too, until he’d been killed by a rock slide. Hunter had come to town to kill the Merricks, in retaliation. He’d thought they were responsible for his father’s death—until Becca had convinced him otherwise. For the last few days, they’d shared a kind of awkward truce.
“Yeah,” said Gabriel. “I’m all right.”
Hunter glanced at Layne. “Are you all—”
“Fine,” she said. Then she turned and dashed into the crowd of students.
Hunter stared after her. “What just happened?”
Gabriel didn’t hate this dude the way Chris did, but some sense of brotherly loyalty insisted he feel irritation at his presence. “None of your business, Mom.” He started walking.
Hunter followed him. “All right, then what happened in second period?”
“I slept through English. You?”
“I don’t think that was sleeping.” Hunter gave a pointed look up, at the lights embedded in the ceiling.
Gabriel sighed and kept walking. Could everyone see through him today?
“You know I’m a Fifth,” Hunter pressed. “I can sense all the elements. The others might not have noticed, but I did.”
“Good for you.”
“Does this have something to do with why Becca wants to meet at lunch?”
Gabriel stopped. “She talked to you?”
“She dropped a note on my desk in History. What’s going on?”
“We have a dinner date.”
“Yeah.” Gabriel started walking again. “And you might want to bring your gun.”
Layne sat on her bedspread and watched her best friend paint her nails an unflattering shade of purple. Sunset had come and gone, and darkness cloaked her bedroom window.
She couldn’t stop thinking of that quiz, the way she’d changed Gabriel Merrick’s answers.
God, she could have been caught. What had she been thinking?
As if her life weren’t already held together by a fraying thread.
“Your hands look like they belong on a corpse,” she said.
Kara frowned and waved her hand in the air. “I like it. Are you sure your mom won’t care that I’m using it?”
Layne shrugged and looked out the window. Her dad would be home soon, so she should start dinner before too long. Otherwise, her little brother would be raiding the kitchen for Pop-Tarts and potato chips.
“She won’t even know,” she said.
“You know, this is like, the good stuff. They don’t even carry this at the salon where my mom goes. It’s probably twenty bucks a bottle.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Kara rolled her eyes. “Of course you wouldn’t. I can’t believe you’re related to that woman.”
Layne picked at her own nails, which were short and unpolished. Sometim-es she couldn’t believe it, either. Her mom lived in labels, the kind splashed all over fashion magazines. More than once, Layne had seen her with the same bag some celebrity was carrying on the cover of Us Weekly.
Layne couldn’t tell the difference between Gucci and Juicy Couture.
Kara thought this was sacrilege. When they’d first become friends freshman year, Kara would beg to rifle through Layne’s mom’s closet. Layne would sit on the end of her parents’ bed and tolerate it, because a friend was a friend. But Layne finally got Kara to knock it off by saying her mom had found out and was pissed.
A complete lie, of course, but there was only so much staring at fabric that she could tolerate.
Kara wasn’t as smart as Layne, either—the only classes they shared were gym and lunch—but she was someone to talk to who didn’t call her a lesbian or get in her face about changing test scores.
Spending half her classes with students two years ahead didn’t leave Layne with a whole lot of friendship options.
Since the first day of school, she’d wondered what it would be like to have a guy like Gabriel Merrick talk to her. She’d noticed him right off—honestly, what girl wouldn’t?—and when Kara told her he had a twin, she’d wondered how fate could create two guys to look like that.
She’d lucked out with that assignment to sit next to him in trig—or so she’d thought. He sat behind Taylor Morrissey, who seemed to make it her life’s goal to humiliate Layne every time she saw her. But it also gave Layne a chance to watch Gabriel check Taylor out.
Every. Frigging. Day.
Really, she couldn’t blame him. Some days, Taylor could have worn a bathing suit to school. . .
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