Storm Page 28

’’All right.’’ He paused, and she wondered if he was going to poke at her wounds, the way Chris had. But there was no curiosity in Hunter\s tone just challenge. ’’In or out, Becca?’’

She straightened in her seat and smiled back at him. ’’In.’’


Hunter kept an old blanket in the back of his jeep. They sat at the base of a hill on the east side of the park and picked at the bucket of chicken. A playground sat out of sight, and Becca occasionally heard the shrieks of overexcited children, but mostly, a peaceful stillness hung over the grass. She forgot about killers and elements and relaxed into Hunter\s quiet presence.

He was good company, too, talking about stupid things to amuse her. How he\d moved just two hours away from home, but it felt like too far to visit friends. He talked about the friends he\d left behind, who Facebooked him every night asking for pictures of girls. He mocked the movies he hated because the actors were idiots. He talked about books he\d read and ones he\d pretended to read, just to get through a class. There were a lot of those.

’’Even Pride and Prejudice?’’ she said.

’’Please.’’ He gave her a crooked smile. ’’Wikipedia.’’ He stripped the skin off his chicken and fed it to Casper.

’’Don\ you feel like you\ e cheating?’’

’’I like to think of it as challenging myself more.’’

That made her smile. ’’Do you still pass?’’

’’Of course.’’ He flung another fry for Casper. ’’If I failed a class because I didn\ read the book, my dad would kill me.’’

His words were like a stone thrown into a pond, in flight for a moment, then sinking fast. Hunter lost the smile, as if he realized what he\d said.

Becca wanted to reach out and touch him then wondered if that would be appropriate. The moment felt precarious, as if one small movement in any direction might throw everything off balance. He tossed another fry to the dog, not looking at her now.

’’So he was strict?’’ she asked quietly. ’’Your dad?’’

He looked up, and she found emotion trapped in his eyes. ’’No. Not really.’’

’’You must have been very close.’’

He shrugged.

She waited, but he didn\ offer anything further. ’’So ... were you and he ’’

’’Can we talk about something else?’’

She flushed. ’’Of course.’’

Becca busied herself with cleaning up their plates, though there was barely enough to warrant a clean-up effort.

’’Hey.’’ Hunter caught her wrist and stilled her movement.

She held her breath.

’’Thanks,’’ he said softly. ’’I can\ . It\s just ’’

His voice stopped, and she chanced a look up. His expression was frozen, his breathing quick and shallow.

’’I can\ ,’’ he finally said.

She nodded, then bit her lip. ’’I\m sorry, Hunter,’’ she whispered.

’’Don\ be sorry.’’ Now she earned a shadow of a smile but it looked like it might shatter. ’’Just talk about something else.’’

She struggled for something to say that wouldn\ completely derail him. ’’Well ... I went shopping with Quinn yesterday, and I think she could wear a bathing suit to Homecoming and cover more skin than the dress she bought.’’

His smile widened just a bit, but enough. ’’Quinn likes attention.’’

He\d sure read her friend fast. ’’Yeah.’’ She glanced away and gave a light laugh. ’’Who doesn\ , right?’’


Becca swung her head back around. He\d sure read her fast.

He settled back on the blanket and rubbed Casper\s fur. ’’When\s Homecoming?’’

’’Two weeks.’’ Why had she brought up the dance? Now he\d think she was fishing for an invite. She kept talking, hoping she could turn his focus elsewhere. ’’It\s usually on a Saturday, but it\s a Friday this year, because of the budget. It was cheaper for a DJ or something. They\ e doing the game on Thursday night. A lot of people are pissed.’’

’’Are you going?’’

’’To the game?’’ She shrugged like it didn\ matter. ’’Probably not. I might have to work.’’

’’No.’’ He smiled, his eyes bright. ’’Are you going to the dance?’’

She rubbed at her neck, very aware of her pulse, of the weight of his gaze. She shrugged again and plucked some clover to start a chain. ’’I don\ know. Depends whether Quinn gets \Rafe\ to ask her.’’

’’You\ e not going with that Chris guy?’’

’’No! Chris and I we\ e just ’’ She stopped herself. They were just what? Friends? Were they even that?

’’We\ e not going,’’ she said. ’’We\ e not even I mean, I never really spoke to Chris until last week.’’

Hunter was watching her now. ’’So how\d you get mixed up in his mess?’’

God, she wished she knew. If she could go back to Wednesday night, the night Tyler and Seth had been kicking his ass, she\d

She\d do the exact same thing. Even knowing what she knew now.

’’Quinn said you saved his life,’’ Hunter said.

Had Quinn said that? She couldn\ remember. ’’I was leaving school late one night. Those guys, Tyler and Seth, the ones with the gun?’’ When he nodded, she continued, ’’They were beating Chris up in the parking lot. There was no one else around, and my cell phone was dead.’’

’’Did they come after you?’’

’’No.’’ She hesitated. ’’I chased them off.’’

’’How?’’ His voice was even.

’’First with my car. I just kind of ... um, drove at them.’’ She had to be blushing. Her face felt like it was on fire. ’’But then they came back, and one of them grabbed me, so I did some self-defense stuff, and they bolted.’’

Now he smiled. ’’Some \self-defense stuff\?’’

’’Don\ tease me! It\s true.’’

’’Okay.’’ He sobered. ’’Show me.’’

Like she needed to make a bigger fool of herself. ’’No. It\s silly.’’

’’Silly? You chased off two big guys. I\d like to see this \self-defense stuff.\ Maybe I could use your techniques.’’

’’I\d just taken a class the school offered,’’ she said. ’’It was fresh in my mind. I couldn\ do it again.’’

He raised an eyebrow.

Ugh. She folded her fingers the way Paul had told her, and did a halfhearted swing.

Hunter caught her wrist. ’’Stand up. Show me. For real.’’

His eyes held that challenge again, like they had in the car. She pushed to her feet and stepped off the blanket, feeling the sun on her face. When Hunter joined her, Casper shifted forward to nose at the abandoned box of potato wedges.

’’I don\ want to hurt you,’’ she said.

Hunter grinned. ’’Now that\s funny.’’

Oh, he wanted to get cocky about it? She didn\ even warn him, just folded her fingers and swung.

He caught her hand. He was quicker than she\d expected. Stronger.

It stole her breath for a second.

’’Not like that,’’ he said. He gently pried her fingers loose and refolded them, making her thumb more prominent. ’’Like this. Do it again.’’

Holy crap. ’’You know about this stuff?’’

’’Oh yeah. I\m a \self-defense stuff\ expert.’’ His tone was wry, but it didn\ sound like he was kidding.


’’Nah.’’ He shrugged. ’’I know a little. You\ e stalling.’’

She swung. He caught. His hand was warm, wrapping around her knuckles.

’’Try again,’’ he said.

She remembered the way he\d grabbed the paper clip out of the air, that first day. ’’I\ll never be faster than you.’’

’’The point isn\ to be faster than me. The point is to mean what you\ e doing.’’ He took a step closer to her, until there wasn\ room for her to take a swing at him. ’’Try again.’’

She backed away and started to swing, but he caught her wrist and took another step. ’’Try again.’’

She took another step back. He came after her.

And then, just for an instant, she felt a flicker of fear. She didn\ even think. Her hand shot out, aiming for his eyes.

Thank god he was quick. She almost got him. But he ducked to the side and deflected her blow with his forearm.

Then his face broke into a smile. ’’Hey. Nice.’’

She flushed, pleased despite herself.

’’What else you got?’’ he said.

Becca had a pretty strong feeling she should quit while she was ahead. She could barely remember half the stuff Paul had shown them in class. But Hunter\s closeness left her a little breathless, a little euphoric. Her heart was still kicking like they\d been running.

She shook her hair back from her face and looked up at him. ’’What else you got?’’

His eyes widened just for an instant. Then they filled with resolve. He looked fierce and gentle, if such a combination was possible. He moved until he stood close enough to share secrets, to dance. To kiss.

’’Choke me,’’ he said.

She jerked back. God, she\d been staring at his mouth.

She coughed to cover her nerves. ’’I\m sorry what?’’

He smiled, not fooled for a second, then reached out to take her hands and place them on his neck.

The warmth of his body reached across the space between them. She could smell whatever detergent his mom used, something fresh and soft, like baby powder and lavender. With her hands against his skin, she felt the beginnings of stubble under his jaw, the muscles in his neck flexing under her fingers.

The position reminded her of those silly dances in middle school, the way girls would hook their hands behind a guy\s neck and kind of sway to the music.

’’Now what?’’ Her voice almost cracked.


’’I\m going to make hooks with my hands ’’ He demonstrated. ’’ and catch your wrists to spring your hands free. Don\ let go.’’

Becca nodded, gazing up at him, thinking his eyes were exactly the color of the grass here.

Now they flickered with challenge. ’’Don\ . Let. Go.’’

She tightened her grip, but he reached into the gap between her wrists and snapped her hands free.

Hey! Her eyes narrowed. ’’Do that again.’’

He did it again. And a third time.

She felt warm, her breaths coming quickly again.

’’There\s no counter leverage,’’ he said. ’’I\m just using your strength against you. Want to try?’’

She nodded before thinking of how his hands would be around her neck, strong and secure, his thumbs brushing her chin, reminding her too much of the way a guy would pull you close to kiss you.

Touch was funny like that. How one movement could choke you and kill you, but another meant nothing more than a caress and an invitation. How se* and rape were just a few motions apart.

’’What are you thinking?’’ He\d stopped moving, his hands loose now, almost on her shoulders instead of her neck. She couldn\ figure out his expression, but she didn\ want to try too hard.

Becca shook her head and looked right back at him. ’’Nothing. Do it. I want to try.’’

He did. She broke his hold on the first try.

She grinned, pleased. This was a bazillion times better than learning from Paul. ’’I did it.’’

He smiled back, but his eyes were serious. ’’Don\ let go this time. Break free, but hold on to me.’’


’’Keep me close so you can hurt me. So you can knee me in the stomach.’’ Now he gave her a rakish smile. ’’Or lower.’’

They practiced breaking choke holds until she mastered that. Then he showed her how to pin an attacker\s forearms to her chest, to control his movement so she could be the aggressor. He showed her the strength in her joints, how an elbow or a knee in the right place could cause more damage than she\d ever thought possible.

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