Storm Page 2

She swallowed. What was the right response? ’’You\ e welcome’’ didn\ quite seem to cover it. Then again, his ’’thanks’’ didn\ , 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\ mind.’’

She didn\ think that was a good idea, but what was she going to do, wrestle him into the ER? ’’Aren\ 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\ e 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\ e 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.

’’Chris?’’

He didn\ answer.

’’Chris.’’

Nothing.

’’Damn it,’’ she whispered.

CHAPTER 2

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\ 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\ 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\ 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\ surprised to see his feet were bare.

His eyes brown, not blue narrowed. ’’A little old to be selling cookies, aren\ you?’’

Jerk. ’’Does Chris Merrick live here?’’

’’Yeah.’’ He gave her the up-and-down again, and she wasn\ 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\ 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\ 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\ 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\ 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.

Ingrate.

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\ 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\ 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\ 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 se*y 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\ seem the best way to uphold her reputation.


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