Storm Page 25

He drew back, putting distance between them. ’’Loud and clear, Becca.’’

She\d pushed too far. She could read it on his face, the steady tension that made his eyes hard while he studied the wall behind the cash registers. He didn\ say anything further, and her comment hung in the air between them.

Not like she\d take it back.

But now she squirmed while he stood like a statue, waiting for the guy to return to the counter. When her dad ran his card through the machine, she swallowed, watching the triple-digit number flash on the register.

She jerked her eyes away and took the phone from the salesman, burying it in her sweatshirt pocket, running her thumb over the smooth newness of the keys.

They made it all the way out of the store before she chanced a look up at her father.

’’Thanks,’’ she said, and her voice was soft in the general cacophony of the crowded mall aisle.

’’You\ e welcome.’’ He didn\ look at her, but some of that tension seemed to have dissipated. ’’Rocky Run for lunch?’’

His voice seemed uncertain again, like maybe he suspected she\d bail on his earlier lunch invitation.

Becca tucked her hair behind her ear and nodded. ’’Okay.’’

There was a wait, of course. But it wasn\ too long, and she sat next to him on the vinyl bench outside the restaurant while some grade school kids roughhoused across the aisle.

Her dad didn\ offer any conversation, and she wondered if he felt as awkward about this as she did.

She let her mind wander, running her eyes along the storefronts down the way. The jewelry store made her think of Hunter, and she absently ran her fingers over the stones still strapped to her wrist, hidden under the sleeve of her hoodie. The music store near the corner was almost empty, since no one bothered to buy CDs anymore. Forever 21 was blasting some R&B song with a heavy beat. Girls were streaming out the door, laden with bags, laughing and giggling and heading this way.

Then she recognized one of them. Lilah.

Seth\s girlfriend.

Her brain kicked into high gear, trying to keep up with the sudden spike in her heart rate. She felt hot, panicked. Was Seth with her? No, it was just girls. But Lilah would recognize her, right? Were Seth and Tyler here, in the mall?

’’Becca?’’

Her dad\s voice, and it sounded like he\d called her name more than once. She had to pry her gaze off the girls to look back at him.

He glanced down at the bench, then back at her face. ’’You okay?’’

She followed his gaze. She\d grabbed his hand without realizing it.

Don\ be such a baby. She snatched it out of his grip and swiped her palm on her jeans.

The girls were almost beside them, and she looked down at her knees, letting her hair fall across her face. Her shoulders tightened. They\d see her. They\d have to see her.

They didn\ see her.

But they walked up to the hostess to ask for a table in the restaurant.

Her dad leaned in. ’’Becca?’’

’’Yeah.’’ She swallowed. ’’I don\ want to have lunch here.’’

He wasn\ an idiot. ’’What just happened?’’

Tension almost made her bite his head off. She glared at him from under the spill of her hair. ’’I just don\ want to eat here, okay?’’

’’Got it.’’ He stood up. ’’Let\s go.’’

She sat hunched in the passenger seat of his truck, leaning against the door, knowing he wanted to interrogate her.

Sure enough, they\d barely made it to the main road before he said, ’’You know those girls?’’

Becca looked out the window. ’’Not really.’’

’’Seemed like you did.’’

She shrugged.

He let a moment pass. ’’Is this about a boy?’’

’’No!’’ She made a frustrated noise and shifted in the seat to face him. ’’Now you want to have the boy conversation? Are you kidding?’’

He sighed. ’’I\d settle for any conversation.’’

Becca straightened. Where\ve you been all this time?

The words were practically burning her lips. She just wasn\ ready for the answer.

’’What about lunch?’’ she said when he turned onto her street.

Her dad kept his eyes on the road. ’’You didn\ seem like you were into it.’’

Did he want an apology? One almost fell out of her mouth anyway. She bit at her lip as he pulled into the driveway. She was still struggling to think of what to say when he killed the engine.

She started to climb down from the cab and was surprised when he did the same.

’’You\ e coming in?’’ she said.

’’I want to talk to your mother.’’

Those words had weight to them, and she knew she knew they were going to talk about her. Probably thinking up some way to manipulate her into spending more time with him.

She rolled her eyes. ’’Whatever.’’

’’I\m not your enemy, Becca.’’

She didn\ have an answer for that, so she bolted up the stairs as soon as they were through the door. He could talk to her mom all he wanted;she didn\ have to be a part of it.

Her mom would probably scrub the gutters with a toothbrush after this.

But maybe Becca could use this distraction to her advantage.

She pocketed her keys and crept down the stairs. Sure enough, they were talking in muted tones in the kitchen.

She could hear her mother\s voice. ’’Bill, you can\ show up and expect me to force her to ’’

Then her dad\s whisper. ’’I don\ want you to force her to do anything. But something obviously happened, and I warned you ’’

’’Bye!’’ Becca yelled, opening the door wide. She could still smell paint. ’’Going to Quinn\s!’’

’’Becca,’’ her mother called. ’’Wait just a min ’’

Becca slammed the door.

Then she hopped down the steps, jumped into her car, and started the ignition.

But at the end of her block, she didn\ turn right, and she didn\ head for Quinn\s house.

She turned left and drove straight to Chris\s.

CHAPTER 18

When she pulled into the driveway, the garage door stood open. The Merrick brothers were outside, hauling bags out of the garage to load them on a flatbed trailer. It was hitched to a red pickup with their name and a landscaping logo on the side.

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel. This gave her absolutely no chance to reconsider what the hell she was doing here. She\d planned to talk to Chris privately, to mention what had happened to her house, to demand answers.

Confronting him in front of his entire family was not part of the plan.

Sunlight warmed the air as she climbed out of the car, though she was glad for her jacket when a breeze raced through the trees to whisper down her neck. The scents coming from the garage made her think of the garden center at Home Depot, something damp and woodsy and not entirely natural, like mulch and topsoil overlaid with a hint of Miracle-Gro. The open garage revealed a huge space that clearly doubled as storage for Michael\s landscaping business. Pallets were stacked along the walls, with bags of things like soil and white sand and red cedar chips. Tools hung everywhere, crammed into every space imaginable, though there had to be a method to the madness.

Michael was closest to her. He dropped a bag labeled LIMESTONES CREENINGS on the pile at the front of the flatbed. He wore a red tee shirt and jeans and his arms already sported a fine layer of dust. As usual, his voice wasn\ friendly. ’’You know it\s the twenty-first century?’’

She had no idea what he was talking about. ’’What?’’

He swiped his hands on his jeans and turned back to the garage. He called over his shoulder, ’’Ever hear of a phone?’’

She straightened her back and stared after him. ’’Ever hear of manners?’’

He was already heaving another bag onto his shoulder, his expression lost in the shadows. ’’You mean like driving up to someone\s house uninvited?’’

What an ass**le. ’’Maybe if you weren\ ’’

’’Becca.’’ Chris was carrying a bag of the same stuff out of the garage. ’’Just ignore him.’’

He flung the bag on top of the pile, then jumped off the trailer to come over to her. His tee shirt was black, and dust streaked across the front of his chest. Sweat had collected on his forehead, and he ducked his head to wipe it on his sleeve.

He seemed wary;that vague tension they\d shared last night still hung between them. ’’What\s up?’’

’’I just ’’ She faltered. One of the twins was carrying another bag to the flatbed. He barely gave her a nod. They looked tired and those bags looked heavy.

They were busy.

All at once, she wanted to slink back to her car. Someone had just painted a star in a circle on her door. Tyler had a gun, and had demonstrated he wasn\ afraid to use it would he really stoop to something like teenage pranks to intimidate her? Maybe it was just like her dad said, some stupid kid being stupid. It wasn\ as if pentagrams were unique to Elementals.

’’You\ e busy,’’ she backpedaled. ’’I shouldn\ have just shown up like this ’’

’’It\s all right.’’ Chris moved closer, until she caught his scent, like sunshine and limestone.

’’Chris.’’ Michael had another bag, and he added it to the stack. ’’Less talk. More work.’’

A spark of irritation lit Chris\s features, but he turned toward the garage. ’’Come on. Talk to me while I load. He\s just pissed because he\s already late.’’

Becca followed him into the cool cavern of the garage. He picked up a bag from the stack and heaved it onto his shoulder.

This felt awkward. ’’Can I help you? Or ’’

’’Go ahead.’’ He flashed a smile. ’’Bring one out.’’

She bent and slid her hands under the slick edges of the sack. It felt like a bag of sand, and it was marked 35KG. She could never remember if kilograms were more than pounds or the other way around, but she crouched and heaved and attempted to lift the sack of limestone.

Christ. It\s more. Kilograms are more. The bag had to weigh at least eighty pounds. She couldn\ even get it off the pallet.

’’Excuse me.’’

One of the twins, his voice threaded with humor. She stepped back, already sensing sweat on her back, just from that moment of effort. She felt like an idiot.

Especially when he hooked his hands under two bags and lifted them against his chest.

’’Showoff,’’ she said.

He shook the hair off his forehead. ’’Maybe you could go in the kitchen and bake us some cookies or something.’’

’’Shut up.’’

He gave her a wicked grin over his shoulder. ’’Just saying.’’

Then Chris was back, grabbing another bag for himself. ’’Come on. Gabriel will rag on you all day if you let him.’’

How does he tell them apart?

He let her walk in silence until he dumped his bag. Then he stood on the side of the flatbed and looked down at her.

’’Becca?’’

She had to give him some reason for being here. ’’I ... ah ... thought we should talk about the project.’’

His brow furrowed. ’’For History?’’

Yeah, it sounded lame to her, too. ’’I didn\ have your number, so I thought maybe ’’

He pointed at the side of the truck. ’’It\s the same as the business number. I\ll write it down for you, or you can just Google it ’’

’’Chris!’’ Michael had a clipboard in one hand now.

Chris swore under his breath and gave his brother a scathing look. ’’Would you give it a rest ’’

’’I\m supposed to lay a flagstone patio by sundown. Move.’’

’’I\ll go.’’ Becca tucked her hair behind her ear and glanced quickly at Michael. ’’We can talk on Monday.’’

Chris shifted closer to her. ’’He can wait one minute.’’ He studied her face, and his voice dropped. ’’Tell me what you really came to say.’’


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