Storm Page 3

Reputation. Ha.

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\ 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 déjàvu: 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\ 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\ e ... 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\ exactly an oddity around here.’’

’’Charming.’’

He glanced up at that, a glint of wicked humor in his eye. ’’I\m sure you\ e special, though.’’

It should have pissed her off, after Michael\s brusque attitude and Nick\s hey-baby-why-don\ -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\ e here for Nicky.’’

Was that an insult? She frowned. ’’No. I brought Chris home.’’

’’Shouldn\ 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\ 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\ e 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\ care.’’ Gabriel didn\ glance at him, just slid the cookies over. Nick pulled out three.

She wanted to ask how Chris was, but she didn\ 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 was glad to have an answer to give him. ’’Ah ... behind the gym. Seth Ramsey was one of them. The other one doesn\ go to our school, but Chris said he used to. I think his name was Tyler.’’

’’Tyler.’’ Gabriel cracked his knuckles, then rolled his shoulders. ’’I swear to god, Michael should have killed that stupid prick when he had the chance ’’

’’Easy.’’ Nick grabbed his brother\s arm. ’’Chris was awake?’’

’’Yeah.’’ They were both looking at her a little too intently, and she remembered why she\d first considered that they might be the aggressors in the parking lot. She wanted to push her chair back a few feet. ’’Well, he was unconscious when I chased the guys off, but I gave him some water ’’

’’You chased them off?’’ Gabriel\s voice was incredulous. He gave her a once-over. ’’By yourself?’’

’’You gave him water?’’ said Nick.

’’Yes.’’ She wet her lips and glanced between them. ’’And yes.’’ She hesitated, then explained what had happened.

When she got to the part where Chris confronted his attackers with the water bottle, she couldn\ make it sound sensible. She must have remembered it wrong.

Freeze. Right there.

Or I\ll mean that literally.

’’Why\d you give him water?’’ Michael was leaning against the doorway molding now, his arms folded across his chest.

The question caught her off guard. ’’I don\ know he was unconscious, and my phone was dead and ’’

’’But you knew.’’

Was she missing something? ’’I knew what?’’

’’Don\ play with me. You knew the water would wake him up.’’

WTF? She glanced at the twins, but they were no help. ’’I hoped it would.’’

’’Of course you did.’’

Nick sighed. ’’Jesus, Michael. Bring it down a notch. She goes to our school. She\s in Chris\s class.’’

Gabriel dropped back into his chair and flashed irritated eyes at the doorway. ’’Yeah, Birkenstock. If you want to get worked up about something, why don\ you take a look in the empty fridge?’’

Michael\s eyes didn\ leave hers. ’’You don\ find this all a little convenient? Tyler\s twice her size. Go take a look at what he did to Chris and tell me you believe he\d let her drive off.’’

Gabriel lost the sneer and turned to look at his twin. ’’He\s that bad?’’

Nick glanced at Michael, then nodded. ’’Pretty bad.’’

Now all three of them were looking at her, and she could feel the aggression in the air.

’’Look, I was just trying to help Chris.’’ She glanced at Nick and balled up the towel to set it on the table. ’’I told you who did this. I didn\ mean to get in the middle of some ... I don\ know, turf war, or gang thing, or whatever you guys are ’’

’’Save it.’’ Michael straightened until he filled the doorway, until she became very aware that he blocked the path out of the kitchen. ’’You expect me to believe you scared off Tyler all by yourself? And he just let you drive Chris home?’’

’’Tyler grabbed me.’’ She swallowed, feeling guilty for absolutely no reason whatsoever. ’’I jabbed him in the eyes and we jumped in the car.’’

Gabriel smiled, and it stole some of the fury from his expression. ’’I like this girl.’’

’’You jabbed him in the eyes,’’ said Michael.

’’Yeah.’’

’’Tyler.’’

Her mouth was dry, and she had to wet her lips again. ’’What, you want a demonstration?’’

He stepped into the kitchen. Instinct forced her out of the chair, and she backed away, toward the cooking island.

But he stopped, his eyes narrowed. ’’What are you afraid of?’’

She was beginning to wish she\d just left Chris in the driveway. Her key ring was in her pocket, and she felt her fingers curl around the steel, her house key and car key poking through her knuckles. ’’You.’’

’’But I thought you were just trying to help.’’ The sarcasm came through loud and clear. Michael took another step toward her. ’’Why would you be afraid of me?’’

She didn\ understand his tone. Some of it felt like concern but some of it felt like crazy-serial-killer. Becca took another step back, putting the cooking island between her and him, before realizing this felt very much like cat and mouse. ’’Stop it.’’

He stared back at her. ’’You\ e not going anywhere until you tell me the truth.’’

Gabriel pulled a cookie from the package and sat back in his chair. ’’My money\s on the girl.’’

My money\s not.

Michael took another step closer ’’How about it? You want to try another story?’’

He stood in the gap between the island and the counter now, blocking her path to the doorway. He was close enough to touch, close enough to grab her. She kept hearing Paul\s words in her head, bits and pieces from the class. Eye contact. Target. Control. Balance.

Then she was doing it. She swung her fist into his midsection, trying to scrape past him into the hallway. He caught her arms.

’’Hey,’’ he said. ’’Wait a second ’’

She swung for his face with the keys, but missed and got his shoulder. She tried to kick him, to knee him in the groin, anything. She had no idea if her hits were successful. His fingers caught at her hoodie and she slid out of it. She felt her shirt ride up to her chest, but she didn\ care. The wet fabric pulled free, and then she was loose, bolting for the doorway.

She felt him right behind her.

Her feet slapped the slate floor of the foyer;then her hand caught the doorknob. The door swung wide and she exploded into the darkness, slipping on the wet steps, skidding in the grass on the way to her car.

Thunder growled in the sky, and the grass gave way to mud, clutching her sneakers. Her knees hit the ground. Her hands squished into the dirt. She slipped and slid, struggling for purchase, but couldn\ find her footing. Her fingers seemed to tangle in the grass, as if the roots grabbed her hands and held her down.

A hand seized her arm and hauled her to her feet. The landscape spun as her eyes tried to keep up. She saw the brightly lit front of the house, the twins on the porch, the frustration in Michael\s face as he tried to get hold of her.


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