Ever since her ex-boyfriend spread lies about her, Becca Chandler is suddenly getting all the guys-the ones she doesn't want. Then she saves Chris Merrick from a beating in the school parking lot. Chris is different. Way different: he can control water-just like his brothers can control fire, wind, and earth. They're powerful. Dangerous. Marked for death.
And now that she knows the truth, so is Becca.
When Hunter, the mysterious new kid in town, turns up with a talent for being in the wrong place at the right time, Becca thinks she can trust him. But then Hunter goes head-to-head with Chris, and Becca wonders who's hiding the most dangerous truth of all . . .
Release date: October 24, 2011
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 416
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Becca hadn’t felt like a victim going in, but she sure did now. When she’d seen the flyers around school advertising a three-hour session with a “women’s defense specialist,” she’d been eager to sign up. But the instructor—really just some college kid named Paul—had been texting half the time, happy enough to pocket their cash in exchange for halfhearted instructions about body blocks and eye gouges. She’d lose another Saturday scrubbing kennels to make this money back.
She’d left her cell phone in her locker, so after class she went to get it. Her best friend had left fourteen texts about some drama with her mom, so Becca stood in the shadowed corridor to write back. Quinn wasn’t exactly patient.
The night air bit at her flushed skin when she slid out the side door, making her wish she’d brought a heavier jacket—but at least the promised rain had held off. Darkness cloaked the now empty parking lot, and her car sat alone near the security lamp in the middle of the cracked concrete.
This was exactly the kind of situation Paul had warned them about: secluded and solitary, offering little visibility. But Becca welcomed the darkness, the silence. She almost wished she smoked, so she could lie on the car’s hood, flick a lighter, and make up names for the constellations while nicotine burned her lungs.
You should be so cool.
Her key found the lock, but the door handle to her aged Honda refused to release. She muttered the obligatory prayer, but nothing happened. Sometimes it took a curse.
Then she heard a muffled shout, a distant scuffle on pavement.
She froze, more curious than afraid. A fight? Here? She saw the combatants, just at the edge of the security light over by the east wing. Three guys fighting, two on one, it looked like. One caught another in a headlock, and the third swung a fist at the captive’s midsection while he struggled.
They weren’t saying anything, making the violence cartoonish and unreal, like watching an action movie on mute.
The kid in the headlock twisted free, his liberty quickly rewarded with a fist to the head, sending him into a stagger. Another punch brought him to the ground.
Then he didn’t move. One of the other guys kicked him in the stomach.
She heard that. And the sound made her remember that she was just standing in the middle of a parking lot, watching.
Becca dropped beside her car. Breath whistled into her lungs. She didn’t want to open the door and have the sound or the light draw their attention. She’d call the police. An ambulance. The whole frigging cavalry.
She thrust her hand into her bag for her cell phone.
Damn Quinn and her fifty bazillion texts. Becca swore and punched the phone against the pavement. The cover snapped off, skittering away under her car.
She peeked around the front bumper. The fallen boy lay in a crumpled pile.
They kicked him again.
“Get up,” she whispered.
She tried to make out who the kids were. Some senior boys got off on violence. She knew a few of them firsthand—some only by reputation. The Merrick twins, maybe?
They were circling now, like vultures. One nudged the fallen boy with his foot.
Then he kicked him. “Get up.”
“Yeah,” said the other one. “How’d you get rid of them?”
The voices were sharp, cruel. She held her breath, wishing she could help somehow. But what could she do? Run at them with her water bottle and the splintered plastic of her cell phone? Maybe she could practice that “confident woman’s walk” Paul had demonstrated.
If only she had a weapon, something to level the playing field.
You idiot. You do have a weapon.
Adrenaline made for a good ally. She’d barely thought it before she was crawling through the back door and climbing into the driver’s seat, driving straight at them.
She had the satisfaction of watching her headlights illuminate their panic; then they were scrambling, diving to get out of the way. Not the Merrick twins, not anyone she could make out at all. Her foot punched the brakes at the last second, jerking the car to an abrupt stop.
“I called the cops!” she shouted out the window, feeling her heart kick against her ribs. “They’re on their way!”
But the boys were already bolting into the darkness.
Her fingers refused to release the steering wheel for the longest moment. She finally pried them free, and, leaving the engine running, eased out of the car.
She wished she’d turned the car differently, because the boy was mostly in shadow, away from the headlights. He lay face-down, the thick dark hair on his head matted with blood at one temple. They’d done a number on his face: More blood glistened on his swollen brow. Abrasions scored his cheek in various directions, as though he’d met the pavement intimately, and more than once. His black hoodie had taken a beating, and his jeans weren’t much better, sporting a tear down the side of one leg. He was breathing, a rattle of air pulling into his lungs, ending on a slight wheeze each time.
She’d never seen someone beaten so badly.
“Hey.” She gave his shoulder a little shake. He didn’t move.
Those boys had run off on foot. She had no idea if they’d stay gone.
Now what, genius?
She left her car engine running, its headlights cutting a path in the darkness. She reached inside the door and pulled out her half-empty water bottle. She crouched beside him, feeling the cold grit of the pavement through her jeans. Then, using her hand to slow the flow, she trickled water down the side of his face.
At first, nothing happened. She watched in macabre fascination as the water pulled blood across his jaw, trailing over his split lip.
Then he came to with a vengeance.
Becca wasn’t ready for that, for him to explode off the ground in a fury, his fists swinging before his eyes were open.
She was lucky he was injured. She barely got out of his way.
His momentum didn’t last long, however. He staggered to a knee, planting a hand against the pavement. He coughed and it shook his body; then he spit what looked like blood.
Now that he wasn’t lying on the ground, she recognized him. Christopher Merrick. Chris. He was a junior, like she was, but she couldn’t think of two words they’d ever exchanged. He was the Merrick twins’ younger brother, the type of guy who’d slouch in the back of the classroom and stare at the teachers with disdain, daring them to call on him. People left him alone, but that’s how he seemed to like it. An outsider by choice.
“You gave me water,” he rasped, his head down.
His voice startled her, made her realize she was just standing there, clutching her water bottle so hard it made the plastic crackle.
“Yeah,” she said. “Those guys—they could come back—”
“Are you stupid?”
The derision in his voice was like a punch to the chest. “Funny. I was just asking myself that.”
“No. I just—I could have hurt—” Chris coughed again, then pressed his forehead to the ground, making a low sound in his throat. He spit blood again. She felt like she was standing in the middle of one of those cable crime dramas—the kind where the violence is too much for network television.
“Do you have a cell phone?” She cast a quick look out into the darkness, but the night remained still. “You need an ambulance.”
“I need a damn rainstorm.” He seemed to laugh, but it choked him. “A drizzle. Fog even.”
He was delirious. “Can you get into the car? I can drive you to the hospital.”
“Whatever. Climb in the car. Those guys could come back, and I’m not—”
A hand closed on her arm, hot and meaty and painful. A voice spoke from the darkness. “Did you think we wouldn’t wait and see?”
“Big surprise.” The other voice now. “No sirens.”
That hand swung her around. This guy didn’t go to her school. He looked older. College, maybe. Short blond hair framed a severe face, all angles and lines.
Something scraped on the pavement. “This is going to suck,” said Chris.
The other one was dragging him to his feet.
Becca knew how to swallow pain and keep emotion off her face. “Let me go. I didn’t call the cops, but he did.”
Those sharp features cracked into a smile. “We took his phone.”
“Good try,” said Chris. He coughed again. The other guy punched him in the side, and he dropped to the pavement.
The one on her arm shoved her up against her car. It hurt. She squealed before she could help it.
“You should have driven away, sweetheart.”
“Nah,” said the other, his dark hair making him look sinister. “That right there is dessert.”
Then she recognized his voice. Seth Ramsey. A senior. And part of the reason she’d been in that self-defense class.
His friend reached out to cup her chin. “Yeah. Dessert.”
Maybe it was Seth’s presence; maybe it was the implication in their words. Whatever, her mind didn’t think, her body just moved. The water bottle went flying and her arm swung.
Something squished under her fingers. He dropped her arm like a hot potato, shoving her away, flying back to put a hand to his face. “Bitch! You bitch!”
Holy crap! It works! She was choking on her breath, but she was free.
“Shut up, Tyler,” Seth hissed. “She might not have called the cops, but you’re gonna—”
“Freeze. Right there.”
At first she thought the cops had shown up. But it was Chris, her water bottle in his hand. He’d found his feet somehow, and though he looked a little unsteady, their assailants went still.
Chris drew a shaky breath. “Back off. Or I’ll mean that literally.”
Mean what literally?
“Yeah, right,” said Seth. “It’s one bottle.”
Chris shook it. The water sloshed. “Try me.”
He had to be out of his mind.
But they backed off. “Chill out, man,” said Tyler. “We’re just screwing around.”
“Yeah.” Chris gave that harsh laugh again, then swiped at his swollen lip. “Feels like it. Take another step back.”
She stared at Chris, as if her water bottle had somehow morphed into a gun, or a switchblade, or anything more intimidating than a plastic cylinder that read Aquafina.
“Becky,” he said. “Get in the car.”
“Becca,” she corrected automatically. Her voice was breathy, her hands still clenched in fists.
“For god’s sake—” His eyes slid left. “Just get in the car.”
She scrambled into the driver’s seat, her hands fumbling for the seat belt. Just when she wondered if he was going to get in, he yanked the back door open and almost fell into the car.
Her foot smacked the accelerator and the car shot forward, swerving toward the building. Her heart beat on the back of her tongue, and she yanked the wheel. The car fishtailed before straightening out.
Chris swore. “Drive without killing me.” He coughed. “I should have clarified.”
She swung the car out of the parking lot and onto the main road, accelerating like a bank robber. Her breath was loud in the confines of the car. Houses whipped by, but she had yet to pass another vehicle.
She barely hesitated at the stop sign at the end of Old Mill Road, screeching through the turn.
“Hey.” Chris’s voice was quiet. “Take it easy. Their car was on the other side of the cafeteria. You can slow down.”
She eased her foot off the pedal. “What did they want? That one guy doesn’t go to our school.”
“Not anymore.” He paused. “Thanks.”
She swallowed. What was the right response? “You’re welcome” didn’t quite seem to cover it. Then again, his “thanks” didn’t, either. “Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
“Nah. Home.” His breath hitched, and she took a glance at him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were half closed, his voice ironic. “If you don’t mind.”
She didn’t think that was a good idea, but what was she going to do, wrestle him into the ER? “Aren’t your parents going to freak when they see you?”
That rough laugh again. “I’d probably freak if I saw them.” A peal of thunder interrupted his words. Raindrops appeared on the windshield. “Figures,” he muttered. “Now it rains.”
Maybe he had a head injury. “Where do you live?”
“Just north of the fire station. On Chautauga. We’re the blue house at the end of the court.”
She nodded, her knuckles white on the steering wheel. He fell silent for a while, and she glanced in the rearview again to find his eyes on her. Blue eyes. Nice eyes, she noticed, sharp and intelligent under that fringe of dark hair.
Then he smirked. With the cuts and bruises on his face, it made him look a little scary. “You’re probably thinking I owe you my life.”
She jerked her eyes back to the road. “No,” she snapped. “Just sixty bucks.”
“You charge for the hero act?”
His voice sounded light, but she still heard the wheeze behind the words. Another quick glance in the mirror revealed his head had fallen back against the seat.
“I really think I should take you to the hospital. You probably have broken ribs.” And a concussion. “They can call your parents from there.”
“Why? You think they have a Ouija board?”
She glanced at him worriedly, and his eyes opened fully. “My parents are dead, Becca. Do you think you could open a window?”
Maybe the fresh air would help. She pushed the button to drop his window a few inches, not wanting to let the rain in.
He sighed. “Thanks.”
He fell silent for a mile, and when they came to the red light by the community college, she turned in her seat. His eyes were closed.
He didn’t answer.
“Damn it,” she whispered.
The blue house at the end of Chautauga Court stood two stories high on half an acre of land. It was easily twice the size of her own, the kind of property better suited to Labrador retrievers and backyard barbecues than clotheslines and broken-down vehicles. Lights blazed in the windows of the main level, a clear sign someone was home.
He’d said his parents were dead. Did he and his brothers live with grandparents?
She parked behind a mini-SUV in the driveway, one of those newer hybrids. Dark red and gleaming in the light over the garage, the car didn’t seem like a grandparent kind of vehicle. Vibrant landscaping enhanced the front of the house, the expensive kind, lush and modern. Thick, sculpted shrubs and greenery crawled along the walkway, giving way to rhododendron bushes and clusters of mums beside the porch steps.
Someone took good care of this yard. Maybe this wasn’t the right house. But it was the only blue one. Could she really knock on the door and say some kid was bleeding and unconscious in her backseat?
Chris still sat upright, but his breathing sounded worse, a rush and whistle before the wheeze. She shoved on the driver’s side door until it gave, jammed her hands into her sweatshirt pockets, and hunched her shoulders against the cool September rain.
As she approached the house, she prepared herself for either young, hip grandparents or maybe a middle-aged aunt and uncle. Instead, a rough-cut guy in his early twenties yanked open the door.
Becca stood there in shock for a moment, feeling rain drip from her hair down her collar.
He looked a little like Chris, she supposed, with dark hair and a strong jaw. But Chris’s hair was short, his clothes fitted and current, while this guy looked like he woke up in the morning and didn’t give a crap. His hair was longer, pulled into a haphazard ponytail, his tee shirt faded and worn. Calling his jeans threadbare would be a compliment. She wasn’t surprised to see his feet were bare.
His eyes—brown, not blue—narrowed. “A little old to be selling cookies, aren’t you?”
Jerk. “Does Chris Merrick live here?”
“Yeah.” He gave her the up-and-down again, and she wasn’t a fan of his expression. He looked like he wanted to say something else, but settled on, “He’s not home.”
“No kidding. He’s unconscious in my backseat.”
“He’s what?” His eyes narrowed and finally seemed to focus on her. Without waiting for an answer, he leaned back to yell into the house. “Nick!”
Then he put a hand on her shoulder, moved her to the side—not gently, either—and strode off the porch. She was torn between following him and waiting, but the sky split and flashed with lightning, followed by a crack of thunder. She shivered and rubbed her arms, then backed up to stand closer to the house.
“Scared of storms?”
She jumped. The voice had come from behind her, and she forced her hands to her sides, ready to feign nonchalance. “No,” she lied, starting to turn. “I’m just—”
Face-to-face with hotness.
Her tongue stumbled for a minute. She’d seen the Merrick twins around school, of course. But catching a glimpse down the hall wasn’t the same as being six inches away from one of them, getting an eyeful of the way his long-sleeve tee clung to muscled shoulders, or of the faint shadow of stubble along his jaw, or the depth of blue in his eyes.
Eyes that studied her a little too closely just now, a spark of amusement there.
Nick Merrick knew exactly what he looked like, and he knew she was looking.
She squared her shoulders and pretended she couldn’t feel the flare of heat on her cheeks. “Your brother got in a fight.” She gestured to her car, to where the scruffy guy was half kneeling on the backseat, one leg braced on the driveway. “I brought him home.”
Nick looked past her and sighed, almost with exasperation. “Damn it, Gabriel.”
His twin. She shook her head. “Chris.”
He’d been moving toward the steps, but stopped short and looked at her. “Chris?”
“Yeah. Your brother. Chris.” Could she possibly stop sounding like an idiot? “He was in a fight behind the gym, and—”
Boom! Thunder shook the house. She flinched and lost her words.
Nick wasn’t listening to her anyway. He jumped off the porch to sprint down the walk, and was now helping the other guy pull Chris out of the car. Somehow they got him supported between them, leaving her car door open to maneuver him onto the walkway. Chris seemed to be trying to help, his feet catching the pavement.
“Can I help?” she called.
The ponytailed guy glared up at her. “No. You’ve done enough.”
Nick swore. “Leave her alone, Michael.”
Like she’d been the one to beat Chris to pieces. “Look, I wanted to take him to the hospital—”
Thunder cracked. The sky opened up.
The rain fell loud and hard, a blanket of white noise that filled her ears and trapped her on the porch. The three on the walkway were drenched immediately. Rain caught the blood on Chris’s face and pulled it down his chin. Lightning flashed, making his skin paler, his bruises darker. In the two minutes she’d been standing on the porch, she’d forgotten how bad it was. He’d taken a lot of damage.
They wrangled him up the steps. His knees buckled as soon as they were under cover.
Nick grunted and caught his weight. “Come on, Chris.”
“Where was he tonight?” the other guy snapped. “I thought he was at school. If Gabriel got him into—”
“He was at school,” she offered. “In the parking lot—”
“Yeah?” Now Michael turned that glare on her. “And what were you doing there?”
“Save it for later, Michael.” Water was dripping from Nick’s hair into his eyes. He wasn’t looking at her, but at the other guy, and he jerked his head toward the doorway. “Let’s just get him upstairs.”
They mostly carried Chris through the doorway, leaving her fidgeting on the porch. She put a hand on the doorframe, wondering if they expected her to come in, to wait, to explain.
You’ve done enough.
The back door to her car was open anyway, rain probably soaking the seat. She pulled her collar up against her neck and sprinted down the walkway, feeling rain beat against her hair and slap her cheeks.
Half her backseat was drenched. She swore and slammed the door, then fought with the handle of the driver’s side door.
Lightning lit up the sky. “Hey.”
The voice spoke out of the darkness, just beside her ear. She whirled, flattening against her car, thinking of Tyler and Seth and what they’d threatened to do.
But it was just Nick, his eyes dark this far from the lights on the porch. “You want to come in for a minute?”
He seemed to speak right through the rain, his voice intense, as if they weren’t near strangers standing in the middle of a downpour.
His eyebrow raised, and he pushed wet hair off his forehead, making it spike a little from the rain. “How about it?”
Becca swung away to fight with her door handle. “Save it. The other guy didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat.”
He reached out a hand and held the door closed—like it needed the help. “Michael’s okay. Look—” He hesitated, and she watched the water sluice down his forearm. “Tell me what happened to Chris.”
There. True concern. Enough to make her turn back around and swipe the rain out of her eyes. It made her think of Chris’s half-lucid statements from the parking lot. I need a frigging rainstorm.
She stared up at his brother. “I’m getting soaked.”
“So come in. Dry off.” His expression darkened, along with his voice. “Tell me whose ass we need to kick.”
Nick gave her a towel.
He flung it, really. She was dripping on his kitchen tiles, and he tossed it from the doorway.
“Let me change my shirt,” he said. “You want me to get you something?”
She stared at him for a second, wondering whether he meant food or something to wear. When she realized her mouth was working but nothing was coming out, she quickly shook her head.
Then she was alone, long enough that she finally dropped into a chair and shivered. No woman lived in this house; she could tell that just from the kitchen. The paper towel holder sat empty and a stack of dishes hid in the sink. A pot of coffee had been made at some point, left to cool in the carafe long ago. But the counters appeared mostly clean, simple granite that still had a shine and didn’t sport any spilled food. No curtains hung over the windows by the sink, no soft hand towels hung on the oven.
Becca’s mom rarely had a chance to cook, but her kitchen was a place of warmth, with fresh fruit always spilling out of a bowl on the counter, a snack drawer that never went empty, and a feeling of welcome that never went cold.
This kitchen should have been nice, with a set of French doors leading out to a back porch and enough space for a large table and a cooking island. But the lack of family touches left it feeling institutional.
She gave her hair a cursory squeeze with the towel. She’d never been one of those girls who looked sexy with wet hair. Her dark strands weighed heavy on her neck, clumped and tangled from the water. She finger combed them away from her face, knowing it would leave her cheeks stark and pale, making her gray eyes appear huge. She zipped her damp sweatshirt all the way up, though it seemed to seal the cold to her body. Sitting in a house full of boys in a wet tee shirt didn’t seem the best way to uphold her reputation.
The front door slammed, followed by heavy, clomping footsteps in the hallway. She sat up straighter, rolling the towel into a ball in her lap. Would this be a real adult, someone older and more authoritative than Michael? Nick wasn’t back yet, and she had no idea how to explain her presence.
Those footsteps came all the way to the kitchen. No adult. Just a flash of déjà vu: Nick’s twin.
Since they were identical, he was every inch the looker his brother was. But Gabriel was filthy, his hair wet and disheveled, a streak of dirt across one cheek. His wet hoodie had seen better days, and his shorts fared little better. Old Mill High’s colors of bright red and blue tried to peek through grass stains and mud, but it was a losing battle. He wore shin guards and cleats, and he’d tracked dirt and bits of grass into the kitchen.
Her mother would have had a fit.
Becca opened her mouth to explain herself, expecting him to be surprised, to introduce himself, to ask what she was doing there.
She’d have settled for his acknowledging her presence.
He barely glanced at her on his way to the refrigerator. She watched him pull a jug of red Gatorade off the shelf and drink half of it while he surveyed the rest of the refrigerator contents.
“Hi,” she said, just in case there was any way he’d missed the living, breathing female sitting in full view of the doorway.
He didn’t turn. “ ’Sup.” Then he swung the refrigerator door closed, slapping the Gatorade bottle on the counter while he riffled through cabinets. He must have been satisfied when he came up with a package of chocolate chip cookies, because he grabbed his drink and dropped into the chair across from her.
He smelled like grass and dirt and sweat, and he looked so much like Nick that she had to stop herself from staring.
He ripped open the package and pulled three out for himself, then shoved the cookies toward the middle of the table. “Want some?”
“I’m good. Thanks.” She had to clear her throat to state the obvious. “You’re ... ah ... probably wondering what I’m doing here.”
“Nah.” He took a swig of Gatorade, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Finding a girl in the kitchen isn’t exactly an oddity around here.”
He glanced up at that, a glint of wicked humor in his eye. “I’m sure you’re special, though.”
It should have pissed her off, after Michael’s brusque attitude and Nick’s hey-baby-why-don’t-you-come-inside. But Gabriel’s teasing was straightforward, challenging, in a way. He expected her to girl it up, to huff and fold her arms. She could tell.
“Not special at all.” She changed her mind and leaned in to take a cookie. “I just heard my number called and thought I’d better show up.”
He grinned. “No way you’re here for Nicky.”
Was that an insult? She frowned. “No. I brought Chris home.”
“Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” He pulled a fourth cookie from the pack.
She shook her head and opened her mouth to explain, but his eyes narrowed, his gaze turning more appraising. “Wait. I know you from somewhere.”
Probably, if he was on the soccer team. Drew McKay was the team captain, and thanks to Drew and his friends, she’d been the subject of locker room speculation since school started a few weeks ago.
She took another cookie. “Great detective work, Sherlock. We go to the same school.”
He made a dismissive gesture. “That’s not it. What’s your name?”
Of course he wouldn’t know. She got a quick flash of how this would go.
Becca, she’d say. Becca Chandler.
His sharp eyes would darken in recognition, and that smile would turn into a smirk, and she’d spend three minutes listening to idle commentary about her supposed talents.
Maybe not three minutes. She’d gotten better at walking away.
“Becca,” she said. Then, knowing boys rarely gave up a chance to talk about themselves, she quickly added, “You play soccer?”
He nodded and took another swig of Gatorade. “Well, technically, Nick does. You’re not allowed to play on more than two varsity teams per year.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You pretend to be your brother? And no one has a problem with that?”
“Who would have a problem with it?”
The principal. The school board. The team. She stared at him. “Do people know you do it?”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Who could prove it?”
“Me.” Nick came through the doorway, wearing dry jeans and a black tee shirt. He pulled out the chair beside his twin and slid into it.
“You don’t care.” Gabriel didn’t glance at him, just slid the cookies over. Nick pulled out three.
She wanted to ask how Chris was, but she didn’t know him that well and asking felt awkward. She fidgeted with the wet sleeve of her sweatshirt.
Nick was watching her. “Chris is pretty banged up.” He paused. “Thanks for bringing him home.”
Gabriel turned. “What happened to Chris?”
Nick nodded her way. “Ask her.”
Becca pushed wet hair behind her ear. “I only caught the tail end of it. Some guys were beating the crap out of him.”
Gabriel’s anger flared like a flame on a match. That easy smile vanished and he came halfway out of his chair. “Some guys were beating the crap out of Chris? Who? Where?”
His vehemence took her by surprise, and it took her a second to get it together. Becca w. . .
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