Home » , , , , , , , » Everyone Keeps Secrets (Romantic Suspense Saga: Part 1) by Katherine Greyson

Everyone Keeps Secrets (Romantic Suspense Saga: Part 1) by Katherine Greyson

Her scream still echoed in his ears—that horrible shrill sound human beings make right before they die. Twelve-year-old William trembled, not from the cold, but out of shock. He crossed his arms, pressed them into his stomach and began rocking back and forth. “It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen,” he mumbled to himself as his little body went numb.
Everyone Keeps Secrets (Romantic Suspense Saga: Part 1)
Everyone Keeps Secrets (Romantic Suspense Saga: Part 1) by Katherine Greyson
As William sat frozen in the passenger seat, a whimper came from the backseat of the car. He turned to look and the stiff, vinyl seat creaked underneath him. There lay his puppy, wounded, resting its head on his little brother’s lap. The puppy’s big, brown eyes blinked and looked up at William. As he stared at the dog’s injuries, guilt pressed down on his chest. Charles stroked the dog’s brown fur. “What was that loud bang I heard, William?” Through a broken jaw, William strained to answer him but the only sound he could make was a slurred groan. When the puppy tried to raise its head, it yelped in pain. “Oh, it’s okay.” Charles patted the dog behind its crooked ear. Overwhelmed with grief, William had to look away. He stared up the long circular driveway that ran across the front lawn of his family’s estate. His gaze drifted—until it locked onto the delicate, yellow flowers his mom had planted just a few days before. Charles’s little voice quivered, “I heard a girl scream.” William covered his ears trying to block her cries for help, but the sounds weren’t coming from outside—they ricocheted within his head. Charles squinted and looked around. “Where’s Mom and Dad?” A steel wall of denial slammed down as a void swept across William’s mind—subconsciously shielding him from the truth. A moment later, Charles pointed toward the house. “Here he comes.” William flinched. In a last bid of self-preservation, his hand instinctively reached for the door handle. William was about to bolt when he thought of Charles; he loved his brother dearly. He wanted to run, but he knew if he did Charles wouldn’t be able to keep up. William’s stomach muscles cinched when he thought about the awful things that would happen to his seven-year-old brother if he left him behind. William’s shoulders slumped and he let go of the door handle. A split-second later the driver’s side door whipped open. When the car’s engine roared to life, the tang scent of burnt oil blasted from the vents stinging William’s nostrils. He looked over at the car keys that dangled from the ignition and saw they were covered in blood. A cold tremor raced up the back of his neck. The gearshift slammed into reverse. The car flew backwards. Gravel pelted the undercarriage. As the car fled from the horrific crime scene, William’s heart sank. Frantically, he searched through the trees, seeking one last glimpse of his mother’s bedroom window. CHAPTER TWO Sweet Sixteen Five Years Later Simplicity Kendall ~Present Day~ Waiting with my girlfriends for school to start, I looked up at the blue sky, closed my eyes, and inhaled a long, deep breath. The crisp September wind, that marked the change from summer to fall, made me feel like something unusual was in the air. It was the first day of classes and my girlfriends and I had arrived early. My friends, wasting time, had made up their own kind of spectator sport. As the students arrived, they’d scrutinize all the new school clothes with the same enthusiasm as a red-carpet fashion reporter. I cringed with empathy as I watched each awkward teen parade by. Tabitha shook her head and her blonde hair, tightly cinched in a ponytail, whipped back and forth. “I can’t believe it.” Melanie pushed up her oversized glasses. “What can’t you believe, Tabby?” “Look at Tiffany Martin. She’s wearing bright orange!” “Unbelievable.” Justine tossed her hand over her curly auburn hair. “No way,” Ally chimed in. “Yeah, way. Look.” Tabitha pointed. “It’s that same orange color that inmates wear in prison.” I glanced up at our penitentiary of a high school and added, “Well at least convict-couture matches the look of our school.” The girls laughed. Stony Creek High didn’t look like a typical school. Built during the sixties, it was a gloomy, gray structure with barely any windows. Deep ridges were grooved into the thick concrete walls. It made Alcatraz look homey. From my Advanced Placement U.S. History class, I knew the sixties were a tumultuous period. The Cold War was at its height, and from the boxy, stark exterior of the buildings, the architecture made you think that a nuke was about to be dropped from above; the school looked more like a bomb shelter than a place of learning. In sharp contrast, the campus was picturesque. Set into the side of the steep hill, it overlooked the beautiful, bluish-green waters of Beaver Lake. Along the shore, tall, majestic pines lined the water's edge. Our hangout spot was on the top terrace, where we could see everyone coming and going. The boys preferred the bottom level, which kept them—and their usual hijinks—out of view from the school’s occasional window. Tabitha stepped over and tilted her head. “What’s up with you today? Where’s our sweet Simplicity?” “Ugh. She’s not here today.” I twisted the end of my favorite Hollister pink and white, button-down shirt under my finger. “I think my friend is looming on the horizon.” “Oh. . . .” She put her hands up and stepped back. I chuckled. Being best friends, she knew how drastically my mood swung from loveable, sweet Simplicity to raging grizzly bear each month. “PMS again?” she whispered, looking very concerned. “Yeah. Do you have any Midol? I’m desperate for some relief.” “Let me see.” Tabitha opened up her suitcase-sized purse. She kept it well stocked with every possible item you could think of—it was like a Super Walmart. The darn thing weighed so much I was surprised her shoulder wasn’t crooked. With her head buried inside the bag, Tabitha shifted huge piles of junk around. “It’s the first day of school and I have nothing in here.” I chuckled at her concept of nothing. “That’s fine. I appreciate you looking.” “Simplicity?” Melanie called out as she walked over to us. I quickly checked my phone again. “Yup.” She took me by the elbow. “I want to talk to you before school starts.” Oh, no. Judging by her serious expression, I knew something bad was coming. “…Yes.” She pushed a piece of her dark-brown hair behind her ear and then huddled in close. “I had one of my dreams again last night.” I bit my tongue. Every so often, Melanie would have a premonition that something horrible was going to happen to Tabitha or me. Tabby and I tried not to encourage her, since we knew she fretted about everything. “What happened this time?” “Remember when I had a dream you were mangled in a car wreck?” “Yup, I remember.” I did get into a car accident that day—a minor fender bender—but when I began to tell her, she looked so ecstatic she had actually been right I didn’t have the heart to say that only the bumper had been scratched. “And do you remember when I predicted you’d break your arm and then—” “I fell out of the tree.” I finished her sentence for her. “This time…It’s worse.” “Uh-huh.” I looked around. “Well, in this dream…you fell into a black hole.” My head whipped up. “A what?” I bit my lip holding back a laugh. She shrugged. “That’s the best I can describe the image. It was so dark.” “Oh.” I struggled not to make a face. “Okay.” Her pale blue eyes squinted. “You don’t believe me, do you?” “No, I believe you had a dream.” “But you don’t think it was a premonition?” “Well…” I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I didn’t want to lie, either. “No,” I said firmly. Her cute chubby cheeks wilted. I felt bad. “Listen Melanie. It’s me. I just don’t believe in all that hocus-pocus type stuff. That’s all.” “Uh. Huh.” “You know how pragmatic I am—everything by the book.” I put myself down hoping it would cheer her up. Her eyes lifted. “All right,” quickly she added, “but just be extra careful today. Okay?” I smiled. “I will.” “Good.” She nodded with purpose like her mission had been accomplished. “Mel?” Tabitha called out. “Do you know who is teaching Honor’s English this year?” “I think it’s Mr. Case.” Melanie distracted, headed back to the group. I walked off and checked my cell phone again. I knew my dad planned to text me this morning and I wanted to respond before the teachers made me shut-off my phone. My dad was the best. “You look just like your beautiful mother but with my green eyes,” he said to me that morning before I left for school. To everyone else in town my dad was the “Big, Bad Intimidator” but to me, he was a giant teddy bear. We had a very close relationship—mostly because we were so alike—but also because of what had happened to our family. Seeing no text yet, I raised my head and looked over the crowd of students that was beginning to form. That’s when I caught Brian Hamilton giving me the once-over. His eyes lingered a tad too long on certain parts of my body. I gave Brian a polite smile, followed by a don’t-even-think-about-asking-me-out expression. Over the summer, I had grown in height but also in other various ways. Throughout my sophomore year, my body was all gangly looking, but over the last few months, my hormones had kicked into overdrive, and curves had started popping out all over the place. Tabitha, who noticed Brian’s ogling, glanced back at me. “Is it me or did all the boys in our class get a booster shot of hormones this summer?” I laughed. “Yeah, I think you’re right.” Back at South Middle School, I thought all boys were oblivious to us girls, but then I read in a teen magazine that boys take two years longer to develop. However, the way most of them had been eyeballing us this morning, I was starting to think they were catching up to us—fast. Tabitha had the most “experience” of our “very inexperienced” group. She’d been the first one of us to have an official boyfriend, Timmy. They’d gone to the movies and other aboveboard activities that our ultra-conservative parents deemed appropriate for young ladies our age—sweet sixteen. Tabitha asked me to tag along with her a few times with one after another of Timmy’s guy friends—kinda’ double dating. I did it mostly for Tabitha’s sake. The boys wanted to go out with me alone, but I was never interested. They were nice. Attractive in one way or another, but none of them really turned my head. Tabitha, who was one of my two best friends, had shoulder-length blonde hair with that natural curl most girls would kill for. Her hazel eyes, ridiculously skinny “size one” figure, along with a cute smile, made her popular with all the boys. Melanie, my other best friend, was Tabitha’s opposite. She had pale, almost translucent-blue eyes. I loved her hairstyle; a cute bob cut. Her parents kept pushing her to wear contacts, but she preferred her glasses. I thought my looks fell somewhere in the middle—pretty, but no knockout. I’d been trying to grow out my hair for years, but to no avail. Tabby, Mel, and I had been friends since we were girls, but over the years, our group expanded. Spitfire-red-head Justine and shy little Ally, had known each other for years. When we met the first day of high school, we all instantly bonded. Justine, who was the tallest of our group, continued to scan the crowd. Melanie asked, “Do you see anyone new?” “A few geeky freshman—Oh wait. There is one older boy.” Her eyes grew wide. “I’ve never seen him before.” Melanie raised her head, her interest clearly piqued by the arrival of a new boy our age in a school this small in size. “Where is he?” Justine pointed a few terraces down. “Right there. He’s sitting on the overhang above the maintenance loading dock.” Little Ally hopped up and down trying to catch a peek. “I can’t see him.” “He’s on top of the wall where Gabe and all the other jocks sit.” Justine scrutinized him. “And man, does he have a hot bod.” “Is he a jock?” Tabitha craned her neck. “No, I don’t think so. He’s dressed from head to toe in black. He’s giving off sort of a bad-boy vibe.” The unusual description immediately drew the rest of the girls’ attention. All of them stood on their tippy-toes trying to check out the new student. “Where is he?” “That’s him right there, sitting near those clueless freshmen.” Tabitha scanned the crowd of kids. “I wonder where Gabe and his crew are. You know how territorial boys can be. They aren’t going to like anyone sitting in their prime spot.” Melanie leaned over the railing. “I wish he would look up so we could see his face. He’s got it buried in his phone.” I scrolled through my phone, and rolled my eyes. However curious I was about a new student, I stubbornly refused to look in his direction just because he might be attractive. Ignoring the distraction, I inhaled a deep breath of the refreshing, fall air. Normally I would’ve been a ball of enthusiasm as I waited for school to start. Still in that fresh moment of anticipation when I believed my classes would be lively and filled with excitement—right before crushing, bitter reality set in. Instead of being energized though, I was groggy. I’d rushed out the door that morning and forgotten to take something to curb the PMS that always arrived a few days before my friend. How a girl’s period ever earned the title your friend, I’ll never know. There was nothing friendly about it at all. When the school doors opened, my first order of business was to head directly to the nurse’s office and grab a few Midol—provided I didn’t kill somebody beforehand. My phone vibrated in my hand. Surprised, I looked down at the caller ID. Seeing the name, I smiled and picked up. “Hi, Dad.” “Hey, Pumpkin.” I bit my lower lip. My dad had given me that nickname when I was five after I won a pumpkin-pie-eating contest. He clung to those days, back when my mom was still around. “Are you in class yet?” “No. Melanie’s mom dropped us off super early.” “Why?” “I guess she had some important presentation.” I glanced at Melanie feeling sorry for her. I knew her mother viewed parenting as a chore that had to be done—like taking out the garbage. “We’re here, just hanging out waiting for them to unlock the doors.” “How’re the girls?” He spoke in his deep serious dad-tone. “Are you staying out of trouble?” I noticed Tabitha was watching me, so I raised my voice so she could hear. “Yeah, were staying out of trouble.” I winked. She grinned back. I covered my ear and walked away from the group’s noise. “So what’s up, Dad? Everything good?” “Yeah.” “I thought you were just gonna text?” “I was . . .” I stopped cold. My take-no-crap-dad hesitating this long meant he was upset about something. “You okay, dad?” “Yeah, I’m fine, but . . . Cyndi called me. She said you got in a fight with her this morning.” Ugh. A few choice words rolled through my head. I tried very hard not to, but I loathed my stepmother. I knew the secret behind why my dad had married her and the reason he continued to put up with her self-centered behavior now, but the way she treated everyone—especially my little sister—made me mad. I snapped, “I wasn’t fighting.” He politely cleared his throat. I took a deep breath, slowed down, and started again. “I’m sorry I snapped. When Kylie and I were getting ready for school, Cyndi mentioned Mom’s car in the garage. She said it was taking up space, and she wanted to have it towed away to make room for hers. All I said was that you would never do that.” My wording was more along the lines of “My dad would never let you do that,” which of course set her off. “She mentioned it.” He exhaled. “I suppose I see her point. The car’s been sitting there for so long it probably doesn’t work. It’s been ten years.” My stomach clenched. “I haven’t even turned the engine over since—” “Dad.” I cut him off. I didn’t want to remember those painful memories. “I think they’re about to let us in.” “All right. I have to work nights this week, but we’ll talk about this later.” “Okay.” “Stay safe, Simplicity, and have a great day.” “You too, Dad.” I sounded bummed out. “Simplicity?” His voice softened. “You know how much I love you.” “I know.” I imagined my dad with broad shoulders and strong arms as he gave me a gentle bear hug. “I love you too, Dad.” “We’ll work this out.” “Okay. We’ll work it out.” “I’ll see you later tonight?” “Yeah, see ya.” I stared at those gray concrete walls and wondered how different things might have been. Would my dad have been happy, the way we were before my mom died? An unusually icy breeze whipped around me. I shivered feeling the odd tingle. The same eerie sensation I used to have when I was a kid. After my mom’s death, I would wake up in a cold sweat terrified I wasn’t going to make it through the day. As I got older I tossed the fear off as childish, but still that unsettled feeling in my gut had me spooked. It felt like a warning. The girl’s happy chatter snapped me back. “What did they say?” Tabitha asked Ally. Justine shook her head. “We’re juniors now. Why do we have to sit through another first-day-of-school orientation?” “It’s not just for freshman; even seniors have to go,” Ally said. “I think they treat it like a pep rally.” Melanie fluttered her hand. “You know to get everybody to have school spirit and stuff.” “School spirit?” Tabitha scoffed. “What, are we all supposed to be cheerleaders now?” She turned to me. “Simplicity, what Advanced Placement classes are you taking this year?” Before I had time to answer, Justine said, “Oh no!” I looked at her. “What?” I asked. “Here comes Gabe and his crew.” Tabitha snapped her gum. “Uh oh.” Little Ally stretched out trying to see over the crowd. “The new kids better get out of there.” There were some hard and fast rules about the social order of things at high school, one of which was pecking order. Gabe and his group were sharks; everyone else was some level of fish. A new kid, alone with no friends, would be considered plankton. Justine shook her head. “The new kids aren’t moving.” We all looked at each other. Like the screech of a car’s brake right before a traffic accident, we knew what was coming. We grabbed our bags and ran down to watch the “male soap opera” about to unfold. CHAPTER THREE Male Soap Opera The girls and I hurried around the bushes trying to get a good look. Ally couldn’t see, so I slid one of the metal trashcans to the side and waved her over to come stand next to me. A group of broad-shouldered football players approached the new students. The tallest one, Tyler, called out, “You’re sitting in our spot. Move!” The freshman boys frantically grabbed their backpacks and scurried away, but the older kid didn’t move an inch. Boldly he countered, “Why don’t you leave those kids alone and go bully someone else.” I raised my head, impressed to see a new kid with enough guts to defend someone weaker. Most teenage boys I knew were more interested with fitting in and appearing cool rather than helping someone else. “A—hole,” Tyler responded under his breath. “Ooooh…” A few people in the crowd murmured. I looked back expecting the kid to respond, but he didn’t react at all. Instead, he kept his cool as he thumbed through his cell phone. He sat casually on top of the wall that ran along the last terrace that overlooked the loading dock. Fearful of heights, I knew there was a sharp story-and-a-half drop behind him. It made me nervous the way he recklessly sat along the edge—like he didn’t care if he fell or not. Justine looked over at me. “This is getting interesting.” She licked her lips. Always a sucker for a mystery, I studied the kid. His cool demeanor and blatant recklessness piqued my curiosity. I eyed him up and down and wondered what his story was. He wore a thick, black leather jacket, a faded concert T-shirt, black jeans, and worn-out boots that were unlaced at the top. His dark-brown hair, a bit long in the back, looked like it hadn’t been cut in a while. Completing his rough—yet I had to admit, very alluring look— was a layer of stubble. Tyler stepped aside when Gabe, Captain of the football team, sauntered to the front of the pack. “You got a problem hearing?” Slowly the kid looked up at the large group of burly jocks who now stood in front of him. I figured he would just back off when he saw what he was up against, but to my surprise—and everyone else’s—he didn’t. He looked at the vacant spots to his left and right and spoke in a deep, but calm voice, “I don’t see your name written here.” Tabitha and I shot looks at each other. Like the rumbling of the tracks as a freight train approaches, we both knew what was coming: Either this kid turns tail and crawls underneath the nearest rock, or a brawl was about to break out. Gabe looked over the crowd that had formed. His dominance as alpha male of the high school was being challenged and he wasn’t about to let that challenge go. He squared his shoulders, pushed out his chin, and stood directly in front of the kid. “Say that to my face.” The kid let out a long exhale. He placed his cell phone down on top of the wall, removed his leather jacket, and then stood up. Justine simmered, “Ooh…” Audaciously, she ogled him up and down. I was surprised how tall he was. Gabe was the starting quarterback of our championship football team, yet this guy matched him in height and build. Finally getting a clear look at his face, he appeared older, like maybe he belonged in college or something. His face was handsome framed by a strong, masculine jawline. His brow was menacing, but offset by soft, brown eyes. The way he dressed—in a biker’s jacket—I expected a bunch of tattoos or piercings, but he had none that I could see. His clothes really didn’t match his demeanor at all; he stood upright, tall and strong with his feet spread apart, like someone in the military. For a moment, he looked somewhat familiar; though I couldn’t place from where. He rolled his broad shoulders, clicked his square jaw to the side, and tightened his hands into fists. It was clear—the new boy in town—wasn’t about to back down. The corner of his mouth curled into the slightest smirk. “Do you have a problem hearing?” A gasp rippled through the crowd. Gabe smiled, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “You’re new here.” He looked him over again. “What’s your name?” “Jake. Jake Hanson.” “I’m assuming you have no idea who you’re talking to.” Jake raised one eyebrow. “Let me guess, someone who thinks he’s important.” Justine snorted. The jocks edged closer, but Gabe, unperturbed, waved them off. I’d known Gabe and his family since elementary school. Never one to start a fight, I was pretty sure he was about to give this new student a chance to save face. “It’s such a beautiful, cloudless day.” Gabe lifted his hand toward the sky. “This is where the football team sits. So why don’t you just move along?” “Oh, I see. The football team.” Jake smirked. “And let me guess—you’re the quarterback.” Gabe smiled. Jake looked him over. “My guess is that if you didn’t have all that pansy-ass-padding, you couldn’t take a hit.” “I can take a hit better than you.” Gabe looked toward the school. “But I’m not stupid enough to prove it here.” “Oh, really.” Jake glanced over Gabe’s shoulders at the hoard of cronies that backed Gabe up. “So when do you plan on fighting me? When I’m alone.” He glanced at the other students around him. “Or perhaps you hope to jump me in some dark alley, as soon as the rest of the football team is with you; who will, no doubt, jump in to beat the crap out of me—after you fail.” Gabe shook his head. “Not taking the bait, dude.” Jake rubbed at his chin, looked at the school, and then debated for a second. His eyes widened. Then he tilted his head and looked past Gabe. I wondered what he was doing. Jake squinted fascinated. “What the heck is that?” Jake pointed toward the back parking lot. Gabe turned to look. Without warning, Jake nailed him—right in the stomach—one hard, ripping sucker-punch straight to the gut. The spectators roared with excitement. I cringed. Gabe, who was no pampered quarterback, bent slightly but didn’t go down. Recovering quickly, he leveled a hard right, straight at Jake’s face. Jake weaved and pulled back, but the punch still connected with his body. They both let loose after that, striking each other repeatedly in the stomach, in the ribs, in the head. I winced, not liking this at all. Jake taunted him. “Come on, Daisy. Is that all you got?” “You want more?” Gabe barked as he swung away. Jake ducked beneath an uppercut and then looked toward the school again. Tyler called out from the crowd. “You hit like a mama’s boy!” The insult seemed to really tick Jake off. He snarled, “Don’t say anything about my mother.” “Up yours,” Tyler gestured. Jake weaved away from Gabe’s punch and stepped toward the crowd. A second later Tyler’s head snapped back as Jake’s fist smashed into his nose. “Hey,” Gabe snapped. “This is between you and me.” Tyler took his hand from his face, and recoiled at the blood. “Jerk! You’re a mother—” He was cut off when Jake nailed him square in the face again. After that, all hell broke loose as Gabe’s crew surged forward. “Jerk’s going down,” Brendon spit out. Jake kicked and nailed Brendon hard in the groin. Brendon wobbled and then fell to his knees. The sheer number of guys coming at Jake drove him back against the retaining wall. Fists flew as they all tried to get a piece of him. Ally gasped. “He’s taking on half the football team.” Justine beamed. “Yeah!” I shook my head. “I think he’s a glutton for punishment.” Melanie hopped from foot to foot. “Should we get a teacher?” Worried it had gone too far, and knowing the fight was out of sight of the school’s windows, I stepped on top of a bench and looked toward the side doors. To my relief, a couple of others were already banging on the glass trying to get the attention of a teacher inside. When I turned back, the fight had turned gruesome. Blood began to splatter. Most of the girls had to look away. Jake kept up the trash talk, which only annoyed Gabe and his crew more. Emboldened by Jake’s defiance, a couple of lanky freshmen joined in the melee. The fight continued to escalate as a potent mix of male sweat and testosterone drove the mayhem onward. As the lopsided brawl moved closer to the edge of the terrace, I shook my head in disgust. Stupid boys. Tabitha’s hand covered her mouth. “Simplicity, somebody’s going to get seriously injured.” Jake let out a flurry of punches. Two boys stumbled backward. A large group of football players surged forward. Someone grabbed Jake’s arm and pulled it, and him, down to the ground. One of several fists launched at Jake’s face connected with the side of his head. I heard a high-pitched crack—that sounded like a bone had snapped—and then Jake crumpled. I freaked. Through the mix of arms and legs, his gaze caught mine and our eyes briefly locked; then his body slumped to the ground. Oh, crap! I surged forward with reckless determination. “That’s enough,” I yelled. I looked toward the side doors again, but saw no teachers coming. “Stop!” I screamed, but the fight had grown so out of control I couldn’t be heard above the ruckus. I shoved my way behind Gabe and grabbed for his arm, but it was no use; I might as well have been trying to stop a baseball bat in mid-swing. Frantically, I pounded on Gabe’s massive back, trying to stop him, but he was oblivious. Damn it! I don’t know exactly what it was: the sad, defeated look in Jake’s big, brown eyes; my fear that it had gone too far and somebody was seriously injured; or those monthly, raging female hormones that wanted to make every male on the planet suffer, but whatever it was that caused me to tilt, I tilted—in a big way. I grabbed one of the metal covers off a nearby trashcan, took aim, and swung straight for the leader of the mob—Gabe. “What the—” was the last thing I heard just before the metal reverberated off his skull. More punches flew and I stumbled forward—swept up into the free-for-all like a chickpea in a mosh pit. Pushed and elbowed, I became a human pinball as I ricocheted through the chaos. Jake—who’d looked like he was on death’s doorstep all of a sudden came alive. He grabbed one boy and used him like a battering ram as he drove everyone away from me. He snagged me around the waist and placed me up against the wall putting himself between me and the rest of the brawl. “Stay behind me,” he barked. Trapped against the terrace wall and unsure what to do now, I held up the lid from the trashcan to shield myself from the fight. This turned out to be a horrible mistake. Tyler rushed forward and grabbed Jake. Jake twisted and threw Tyler to the ground, while Gabe—who wanted to retaliate against his unknown assailant—who now hid behind the garbage cover—let one hard right uppercut fly. The punch flew up and under the lid, connecting full-force with my jaw. The pop of my mouth as it slammed shut, felt like fireworks going off in my head. Everything flashed bright white for a second as I spun back toward the top of the wall, and then, blacked out. CHAPTER FOUR So, So Wrong All I could see was black. My senses knew something was wrong, but my scrambled brain couldn’t grasp what it was. I thought that my arms dangled and that blood was rushing to my head. Then for a moment it felt like my body was gently swaying in the air—side to side—but that couldn’t be right. As my vision slowly returned, my eyes fluttered open. I gawked at the oddest site: Beaver Lake—upturned. Then I heard the shrill of panicked screeching coming from below my feet. Suddenly it dawned on me. The lake was fine. It was me who was upside down. I looked down in horror at the loading dock one-and-a-half stories below my suspended head. As shock penetrated my muddled mind, I twisted and let out a blood-curdling scream that would wake the dead. “Calm down and stop moving,” Jake snapped. I looked toward my feet and saw his arms wrapped around my legs. I gasped again when I saw he was about to fall, if it weren’t for Gabe holding onto him. The three of us formed a human chain that dangled over the wall slowly swaying back and forth. A dark shape flew by my head. I realized it was a cell phone. It twisted in the air before it smashed onto the pavement—shattering into a million little pieces. Staring straight down, I realized if the height of the fall didn’t kill me, the sharp, metal edge of the recycling bin directly underneath me would finish the job. Terrified, my whole body shook. I heard more screams. I glanced up to my right to see the petrified faces of my friends. “Simplicity!” They called down to me, but they were as helpless as I was. As gravity continued to pull, I began to slip out of my jeans. I reached for the waistband and wrenched up, trying to fight back the laws of physics. “Please help!” I cried out. “Stop moving,” Jake’s voice cracked. I looked at him and our eyes locked again, but his expression wasn’t filled with reassurance; it burned with focus. “Please don’t drop me.” My lip trembled. His face and voice softened. “I won’t let you go.” I gulped. From up above Gabe’s strained voice called out, “Do you have her?” “Yes,” Jake labored. “Do you have me?” “I got you,” Gabe answered. “Then pull us up, damn it!” “Pull!” Gabe yelled to the others behind him. Jake held me in a death grip. Slowly, we started to inch upward. As I was dragged along the side of the wall, the rough concrete snagged the buttons on my shirt and a few popped off. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity as everyone scrambled to get the three of us back to solid ground. Gabe’s friends helped pull us up and over the top of the wall. We collapsed on the ground next to each other. As we rested against the wall, in unison, we let out a sigh of relief. I sat stunned, jammed between the two muttonheads—that I had to admit—had just saved my life. When I turned my head to thank Jake, our noses bumped. He pulled his face back and blinked. Hoarse, I whispered, “Thank you.” I turned to Gabe, but he spoke first. “Are you okay?” I nodded. “Yes. Thank you.” The two of them each took one of my arms and slowly lifted me to my feet. The crowd that had surrounded us backed up to make room. “I’m super sorry.” Gabe brushed the dirt off my shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I adjusted my jeans. “I think so.” However, when I lifted my head, I realized my jaw throbbed. “Simplicity!” Tabitha jumped up and down as she yelled over the shoulders of the football players that had surrounded us. Before I could reach her, the school’s side door slammed open, followed by the distinct voice of Principal Kaftan shouting, “What, is going on out here?” “Damn it,” Gabe cursed. “The coach just gave everyone a stern warning. No trouble or he’ll suspend you from the team.” He turned toward his crew. “Cover for us.” His minions melted together like offensive linemen protecting their quarterback. Gabe took me by the hand and started to lead me away. I snagged my purse from the ground. When I looked up, I saw Jake still leaning up against the wall brushing concrete dust off his shirt. “Come on.” Gabe hurried us around the corner toward the back of the school. “Where are we going?” I tried to shake the fog from my mind. “C.Y.A. Cover Your A—” Gabe stopped himself mid-swear. He pointed toward the front of my shirt. “Nobody should see you like that.” I looked down and realized my blouse was dirty, torn up, and missing half the buttons. “Crud!” Embarrassed that my cleavage was exposed, I clutched the shirt closed and blushed. We snuck around the corner, out of sight, and stopped behind the long windowless wall outside of the gymnasium. Gabe looked me over and a look of deep concern traversed his face. “Seriously, are you okay?” He put his hand on my upper arm. “I’m not sure.” I rubbed my temple. “My head is pounding.” His face softened. “I’m really sorry, Simplicity. I had no idea it was you hiding behind the garbage cover.” He shook his head, his reddened face full of remorse. “I’d never hit a girl—especially you.” I looked at his injuries; he was more worried about me than himself. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to reassure him. He lowered his head close and brushed a stray hair away from my face. “Are you sure you’re alright?” I swallowed. “Yes, thank you.” “Okay.” Slowly, he exhaled and looked around. “I hope no teachers saw us.” “What should we do now?” “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” He bit his lip and his blue eyes flashed wide. “I can’t get suspended from the team—this weekend especially. A scout that recruits for the Big Ten is supposed to be at the game.” He exhaled. “I really don’t want to screw up my chances and disappoint my dad.” I nodded. I knew how much playing college football—and a possible scholarship—meant to Gabe and his father. Warily, he asked, “Are you planning to tell?” “No! I really don’t want anyone to know. In our close-knit town, they’d go right to my dad. And if he found out I jumped into the middle of a fight—and almost fell to my death—he’d wrap me up in bubble wrap, send me off to all-girls parochial school, and then, ground me till I was in college.” “Oh, crud. I forgot all about your dad.” Gabe looked pale. “I really don’t want him to know that I socked his daughter.” He raked his hand through his dirty blond hair. “Who knows what that man would do to me?” The thought of my father’s reaction to all of this made me anxious as well. “There’s no way to keep this a secret looking like that.” He gave a short nod followed by a quick glance at my disheveled state. “Do you have an extra shirt in your gym locker?” “No—it’s only the first day of class.” “What about your friends?” “Doubt it. None of us planned to bring that stuff in until P.E. on Thursday.” “Right.” Gabe scanned the back parking lot. “We’ve got that stupid prep-rally thing this morning. I don’t think any teachers would notice if we weren’t there.” He looked over the area again. “What if I drove you home so you could change?” “Absolutely not! My dad is working nights this week and I doubt he would have left yet. Plus my step-mom’s at home. There’s no way I’m going anywhere near my house.” I glanced down at my shirt. “My dad would freak seeing me like this.” Gabe shook his head. “I can’t get you a change of clothes at my house. My mom’s got some garden club meeting this morning.” A deep voice spoke behind me, “No one’s home where I live.” I whipped around to see Jake walking straight at us. “What are you doing?” Gabe gave him a back-off look. “Are you following us?” “Yes,” Jake responded without hesitation. “You punched this girl and knocked her out. I wasn’t about to let you drag her off.” “I wasn’t dragging her off!” Gabe countered. “Simplicity and I have known each other for years.” Jake looked to me for some kind of acknowledgment that this was the truth. I gave him a curt nod. Seemingly satisfied, he looked back to Gabe. “I had no way of knowing that.” “Well you do now,” Gabe snapped. I started to feel very uneasy standing in between the two of them. Jake kept his steely gaze focused on Gabe. “So, what are you planning to do for her?” “I was trying to figure that out when you rudely interrupted.” Jake, not bothered by Gabe’s snarky attitude, coolly crossed his arms. “You’d better think fast. You’re on borrowed time.” “Whatever.” Jake stepped closer and looked at me. “I’d take my offer.” Gabe stepped in between us. “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re good.” “It isn’t just her shirt.” Jake’s deep voice spoke with an air of authority. “I think that cut on her jaw needs some attention.” I wiped at my chin and looked down at my fingertips, now smeared with blood. Gabe looked at my hand, lifted my chin, and examined the welt. He crumpled his brow. I grew concerned. “Do I need stitches or something?” “I don’t think so, but you probably need to clean the wound out and get some antiseptic on it.” “I have some at home,” Jake added. Gabe looked me over a couple of times and then lowered his mouth close to my ear. “Is this all right with you?” I hesitated, unsure. I’d known Gabe since we were kids. His parents were close friends with my dad, and I felt perfectly safe around him, but I had no idea about this new boy. I looked at Gabe’s grim expression. I knew he was worried about being caught fighting. I didn’t want him to get in trouble, nor myself for that matter. I glanced at my ripped shirt. “I don’t think we have any other options.” He turned to Jake. “Where do you live?” “Off Route 37 near the county line” Gabe, eyed Jake again, and then sucked his teeth, in resigned acceptance he said, “Fine.” So the three of us turned and headed toward the back parking lot—the Jock, the Brain, and the Goth—a perfectly mismatched trio. CHAPTER FIVE The Ride As we crossed the back parking lot, my spinning head caused me to stumble. Gabe reached for my upper arm and steadied me. The mysterious new student followed like a ghost a few steps behind. Gabe pressed the auto unlock on his two-seater sports car and gestured for me to get in. As I started to sit down in the passenger seat, Jake coughed. I turned and looked at him. “What?” Standing there—looking all bad-boy like—with his hands tucked into the pockets of his black jeans, he raised his eyebrows and nodded down at the car seat. Suddenly I realized the problem. “There are only two seats,” I said to Gabe. He looked at me, a little dumbfounded. “Yep. It’s a sports car.” I put my hands on my hips. “Well, where am I supposed to sit?” Gabe gestured to the passenger seat. “Next to—” His head popped up over the car’s roof. “What’s your name again?” “Jake.” “Sit next to Jake.” I huffed, not liking that idea. Gabe raised his eyebrows and shrugged. I frowned, which caused my chin to hurt and remind me I was injured. I rubbed it, and then, begrudgingly, stepped out to make room for Jake. Gabe got in and started the car. Jake slipped past me, courteously slid the passenger seat back as far as it would go, and then sat down. I stood there, staring. At first, I thought maybe we could sit side-by-side, but it was obvious that with his broad muscular frame, coupled with the small bucket seat of the sports car, that side-by-side was never going to happen. Jake glanced up at me and gave me a cute lopsided grin, which only added to my hesitation. I glanced around the parking lot and saw no one who might see this. Very carefully, I attempted to sit on his lap. When I wavered, he placed both of his hands on my hips and then gently lowered me into place. My whole body tensed up feeling really self-conscious sitting on a top of a guy’s lap. Looking like he was enjoying himself, Jake reached out, closed the car door, and snagged the seatbelt. Trying to hide a smirk, he passed the belt from his right to his left hand, and wrapped it around me. The seatbelt, clearly not designed for two people, came up to my neck. I slipped the top strap under my armpit, faced the radio, and stiffly settled in for what I hoped would be a short ride. Gabe gestured toward my knees that rested up against the stick shift, “Umm…” “Sorry.” As Gabe turned to back out, he flashed his baby blues in my direction and smiled. I tried not to think about the fact that if my dad ever found out I had skipped class and left the school grounds with two boys, he’d kill me—and the two boys I was with. I flashed quick peeks at them. The less they knew, the better. I checked my shirt again, rubbed the side of my cheek, and closed my eyes. My eardrums continued to pound. “How’s your jaw?” Jake asked. As I turned to answer, his gaze traveled over my face. It might have been that I was having a craving for some, but his soft brown eyes reminded me of melted chocolate. I swallowed and watched his thick dark lashes as they slowly blinked. Shoot! Trying to regain my momentary loss of composure, I quickly turned away. With a snap, I opened the passenger-side vanity mirror and stared at the bump under my chin. Bright red, it had swollen quickly and it hurt. The lump’s only redeeming quality was its location—under my jaw. I hoped no one, especially my hyper-vigilant father, would notice. With the right amount of makeup and clever avoidance, I might sneak it past him. “It’s okay. Thanks for asking.” “Simplicity?” Gabe leaned over the steering wheel. “I’m sorry you got hurt, but what the heck were you thinking?” He shook his head. “Why would you jump into the middle of a guy fight? I know you’re just like your father and all, but that’s over the top, even for you.” My feminine ire upped, I responded, “Excuse me? Regardless of who my father is, or that I’m a girl, if I see another person being beaten I’m going to do something about it. I am sick of boys,” I seethed over the word, “who should act like men, but instead, choose to behave like toddlers, throwing temper tantrums over infinitesimal territory they think someone else invaded.” Gabe stuck his tongue in his cheek and eyed me. My voice rose higher. “Think about it—you got into a fistfight over a square of cement.” Gabe rolled his eyes. “Roll your eyes all you want, Gabe Bennett. I don’t care. I know—you know—I’m right.” As Jake stifled a chuckle, I felt a vibration coming from his chest. I bit my lip trying not to think about his body underneath me. “Anyway,” I huffed. “You’re the one who got all testosteroned-out and took it too far.” “What?” Gabe gestured toward himself, all exasperated. “It wasn’t my fault. I was willing to let it go and let him, save face.” Gabe stuck his thumb towards Jake. “I was like ‘What the heck, dude? You can’t go dissing me in front of the whole school’—then he sucker-punched me.” I looked at Jake. This time, when my eyes locked on him, Jake was the one who looked away. “I’m sorry I sucker-punched you,” Jake said toward the window. “I was trying to start a fight.” Confused by that logic, I had to ask, “Why?” He looked at me, debated for a moment, and then answered, “No reason.” I looked to Gabe. Gabe let out a snort. I couldn’t tell if it meant acceptance or indignation. “Still,” Gabe shook his head, “you shouldn’t have jumped into the middle of a fight, Simplicity. You could’ve gotten messed up.” “Well, I only jumped in after I heard that high-pitched snap. I thought Jake was seriously injured. It sounded like you broke a bone.” Gabe looked at Jake, concerned. “Is she right? Did you crack a rib or something?” Jake looked over his body giving himself a little self-check. “No, I don’t think so…You know, she probably heard my jaw cracking.” He cocked his mouth to the side and popped his jaw out and back in again. It made that same horrible piercing snap, exactly like I had heard during the fight. I winced. Gabe’s mouth dropped open. “That’s cool, man. Do it again.” “No,” I yelled. “Don’t do it again.” “Why not?” Gabe asked. “I wanna learn how to do that.” I shook my head. “Not while I’m around.” Gabe pulled himself up by the steering wheel. “Where’d you learn that?” “I didn’t learn it. It just does it. I broke my jaw when I was a kid and it never healed right.” Jake started to pop it out again. “Don’t do it.” I twisted around, and without thinking, I grabbed both sides of Jake’s face. “It sounds awful.” While I held his cheeks in my hands, he made an enormous smile and out popped an adorable dimple. A funny shiver went up my spine. I let go, turned away from him, and faced forward. “I hate it when guys crack their knuckles.” Nervously I tapped my foot. Gabe grinned. “Like when girls scrape their nails on a blackboard?” “Yeah, like that.” They both looked at each other with a devious glint. Then Gabe cracked his knuckles as Jake popped his jaw. “Stop it!” I squealed and covered my ears. “Haven’t you two put me through enough today?” “We?” Gabe feigned outrage. “Yes, you, decking me. And you, making me think you were dead.” They both chuckled. “I’m sorry.” Jake gave me a short nod and then gave one to Gabe. “Yeah, sorry.” Gabe looked at me and then at Jake. I watched them. They seemed like they were apologizing to each other as much as to me. A moment later, we reached the main road and turned onto Route 37. “Where’re we headed?” Gabe asked. “My house is across the street from the Cinnico gas station—the one just before the county line. You know where that is?” Gabe nodded. As we drove through the center of Stony Creek, I squished down. The last thing I needed was for some busybody to tell my dad they saw me riding down Main Street—in a sports car—during school hours. I kept myself hidden as I scanned the faces that walked along the old brick sidewalk. Stony Creek was a quaint New England village whose residents kept to themselves, as most New Englanders do. I wondered sometimes what secrets my neighbors kept hidden away behind their stone-faced facades. There was old, white-haired Mr. Crowley, cane in hand, as he limped his way to his brother’s seafood shop. On hot summer afternoons, the dumpster out back reeked of dead fish, or at least I hoped it was dead fish. Kicking down her doorstop was Betty Lou. She was a genteel southerner who had moved here years ago. During the day, she always kept the door at Betty Lou’s House of Beauty wide open as she aired the place out. It always stunk with heavy chemical fumes from the dyes and perms. Inside, a horde of housewives cackled away, gossiping about the latest rumors as they sat getting their hair primped and preened. I squinted and tried to see if my step-mom was there this morning, but her bleached-blonde hair was nowhere to be seen. Last on the block was a small bookstore. Inside it looked like an English aristocrat’s library with tall wood bookshelves. Ms. Canterbury the quiet shy spinster who ran the place, always had her head buried in a book. It was the only place in downtown that I thought had a pleasant aroma. Something was special about the sweet fragrance of old books. As we drove out of town, past the tract housing that marked the transition into suburbia, I squished my legs together and pressed them tightly at the knees. I tried to keep my body formal and rigid, but inertia kept moving me around. When we hit a small pothole, my shoulder inadvertently bumped against the center of Jake’s chest. I swallowed and tried not to think about his firm stomach next to my hip . . . nor to his warm, moist breath that tickled my skin as he exhaled . . . nor to the sharply contrasting cool draft of his inhale that sent shivers along my arm. . . Darn it! Clearly—I was failing. After we entered the main road and the car’s speed increased, I reached for the handle above the window. Teetering, I tried to balance on the muscles of Jake’s thighs attempting to keep my body exactly where he had placed me on his lap. It was uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to shift around at all because I was unsure of what I was sitting near. Boys—down there—were a complete mystery to me. The sex education class I had last year featured only an anatomical picture of one drawn from the side. It looked to me like a weird, limp banana. When I was younger, I thought boys were bizarre creatures from another planet. As I got older, they moved from the alien category over to conquering invaders out to plunder treasure. All my girlfriends were just as inexperienced. We traded ideas, but we had no real clue. And at that moment in our lives—we really didn’t want to know. “Oh shoot! The girls!” I realized my girlfriends were probably panicked, since they had no idea where I’d gone. I reached down for my purse, fished out my phone, and saw that a bazillion text messages had flooded my cell phone in the last fifteen minutes. Fingers flying, I typed away. Gabe looked at me concerned. “Everything okay?” “Yeah, fine. Just half the student body wants to know where we are.” Gabe leaned over and looked down at my phone. “Did any teachers see what happened?” “I don’t know. I’ll ask.” The car drifted over the yellow line. “Keep your eyes on the road,” Jake snapped as his hands protectively grasped my hips a little tighter. “Sorry.” Gabe adjusted the steering wheel and nervously checked the rearview mirror, presumably for a police cruiser. I texted Tabitha. im fine with gabe & new kid did any teachers see us or what happened?!? I wasn’t paying attention and lost focus of my goal of not moving around on Jake’s lap. We took the corner too fast, and my bum slipped down in between his thighs. “Sorry,” I muttered, totally mortified. He gave me a crooked smile. “That’s fine. You’re so light, you can’t break anything important.” I coughed and flushed. His eyes stayed locked on my face, steady and cool. When he looked at me like that, something happened to my brain cells; my synaptic nerve endings stopped working. Instead, they floated around in the euphoric high having a good ole’ time. The funny feelings I was having were momentarily distracted by Tabby texting back. No teachers saw u. No one squealed. WRU? I texted back. my shirt is dirty just getting a new one be back before assembly ends That was all the information I wanted “Gabby Tabby” to have at the moment. She loved to talk, so I withheld all hot, gossipy items: Like the fact that I was alone in a car with two older guys, heading to this new kid’s house out on the edge of town with a ripped up shirt. Nothing that would cause her to fly off the handle, panic, and then tell everyone within earshot, sending the rumormongers’ windmills churning at hurricane speeds. And absolutely nothing that could ever be fully explained in a one hundred and sixty-character text message. “That’s the entrance, there on the left,” Jake pointed. Gabe pulled down a long, winding driveway that led back a good five hundred feet off the road. There, buried in the woods, under a tangle of weeds, was an old, run-down mobile home. It was spooky. Where the trim had fallen off, the gray vinyl siding curled at the ends. In the middle of the mobile home was an aluminum door. On either side of it were cheap single pane windows. The window on the left had been broken and then hastily taped back together with duct-tape. On the right, some faded, yellow insulation hung down from the eave under the roof. Concerned that coming here had been a big mistake, I flashed a look of concern to Gabe. He shot an equally nervous look right back at me. CHAPTER SIX Secrets in the Woods Stepping into Jake’s small living room, I had to blink rapidly to adjust to the dark interior. The place was barren: no pictures, no curtains, no homey signs that human beings actually lived there. Based on the patterns of dust and fading, the furnishings hadn’t been moved in years. Sun-bleached carpeting encircled the furniture like a chalk outline around a dead body. A thick layer of dust, piled high, covered almost everything else. A single blanket and pillow lay on one end of a worn-out, brown couch. It looked to me like someone had been using it for their bed. A few boxes were piled here and there—not taped, just hastily folded over at the tabs. “Did you just move in?” I asked, trying to give Jake a way to save face for the disorder of his dilapidated home. He groaned and looked around. “Yeah—a couple of days ago.” He took off his leather jacket, tossed his keys onto a small dinette table, and then gestured to Gabe. “You can take a seat if you want.” “Thanks.” Gabe nodded, but didn’t sit down. Jake walked over to the refrigerator, pulled out some ice cubes, and dropped them into a plastic bag. He tossed it high in the air to Gabe. “You might want to try that on your knuckles.” Gabe snagged it and looked down at the yellowish ice cubes in the bag. He swallowed. “Appreciate it, man.” Jake gave him a short nod and walked off down a narrow hallway. He flicked on a switch, and I heard the sound of a bathroom fan wheeze to life. Jake looked back to me and then waved his fingers inward, beckoning me to follow. Still unsure, I turned to Gabe. He raised his eyebrow, touched a side table, and then rubbed the dust off his fingers. With the bag of ice on his swollen hand, he continued to eye the living room as he sat down. I took a deep breath, turned and then followed Jake. As I peeked around the corner, I saw Jake crouched down. He was searching for something under the bathroom cabinet sink. “I thought I saw a bottle of it in here.” Nervously, I waited in the claustrophobia-inducing hallway. The walls, covered in mottled-gray fake-wood panels, added to the eerie feel of the mobile home. Jake stood up, held up a dark-brown bottle with a faded label and a facecloth. He gestured for me to come into the tiny bathroom. I looked at the small space between him and the sink. “I don’t think I can squeeze in there.” “You’ll be fine.” I hesitated. “I don’t think—” He stepped toward me, snagged me around the waist, and drew me in; my backside pressed up against the sink as I awkwardly stumbled in compliance. Jake smiled. “You’re so skinny—ten of you could fit in here.” I blushed. He scrunched his tall frame down and lowered his head to get a good look at my cut. “I can’t see it. Hop up on the counter.” He waited. “…Um.” He shook his head at me, put down the bottle, and placed his hands on either side of my hips. Without much effort, he raised me up onto the counter and sat me down on the edge of the sink. I felt tiny in his big, strong hands. Gently, he lifted up my chin. “That’s better.” Goosebumps flew across my skin. He poured the clear liquid onto the cloth and held it up. “This may hurt.” With care, he leaned forward and softly touched the facecloth to my skin. “Does it hurt?” he asked softly. I kept my eyes glued on the wall as I nervously answered, “No.” “Good.” It was strange to have a guy fuss over me like this. He was so close. Feelings swirled inside my body and overwhelmed my already spinning head. When his muscular thighs pressed against my lower legs, a charged thrill raced through my body. A second later, the sharp sting from my chin interrupted the pleasant sensation. “Oww!” I flinched. “What is that stuff?” “Hydrogen peroxide.” I could hear the cut bubbling. “It hurts now.” I clenched my teeth. “I know. I’m sorry, but you have to clean the wound out.” While he continued to press the cloth to my face, he tilted his head and studied me. As his roving eyes scanned back and forth, it felt like his gaze was actually touching my skin. The medicine stung a little deeper. “Ouch!” I pulled away. “I don’t like that stinging and those weird popping sounds. Don’t you have something else?” He raised an eyebrow. “Hey, I’m helping you out. And what were you expecting? Some Bactine and a Barbie Band-Aid.” I rolled my eyes. “You could show a little more compassion.” He made a boyish, crooked grin. “Well maybe if you hold still for once, I’ll give you a boo-boo kiss.” My eyes widened and my chest heaved in an odd mix of embarrassment and exhilaration. No boy had ever even tried to kiss me—I suspected fear of my dad kept them all far away. I realized Jake being new to our town had no clue who my father was. “You shouldn’t say things like that to a girl—lady.” He smirked. “It was a joke.” “Oh...” I deflated. “It shouldn’t hurt as bad now.” He focused back on my chin. “How does that feel?” “Weird. I can still hear that popping sound. Why is that?” With his attention focused on my chin, he casually answered, “The hydrogen peroxide is interacting with your body’s catalase enzymes. They’re breaking down into water and oxygen. What you’re hearing is the oxygen gas being released.” My eyes flew wide open as I stared at him in shock. Instantly, he froze. He looked like a boy caught with his hand in a cookie jar. I made a one-eyed squint. “Well, I’ve blown it.” He chuckled and shrugged his shoulders. “Anyways, what did you think I was? Nothing but a dumb hick who lives in a trailer?” “No,” I countered and shook my head. Yet I had to admit—based on his appearance and where he lived—that was exactly what I had thought. I exhaled, and then slowly I nodded. “Yes. I thought you were nothing but a poor, dumb hick.” He retracted his head, clearly not expecting that answer. “You’re honest, aren’t you?” “Sometimes,” I sighed, “to a fault.” He placed his hands down on either side of the sink and leaned in. His soft brown eyes searched my face. “So tell me, now that Gabe’s not here—why did you jump into that fight?” I stifled a nervous cough. He lowered his head and peeked one eye up at me. “Was it to save me?” “No—well, yes . . . sort of. . .” I shook my head. “I was concerned you were seriously hurt.” He glanced at me. “So you’d do that for anyone?” “Yes.” I nodded firmly. “Yes, I would.” He gave me another quick peek under his thick eyebrows. “So it wasn’t because you thought I was cute or anything?” “No,” I quickly retorted. “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t have a white-knight complex, if you must know.” He smiled and nodded. “You’re complex all right.” I squeezed my fist trying to stop myself from blushing. Slowly, he twisted the cover back on the bottle. “So you’re like Princess Artemisia.” “Who?” “Artemisia. She was a Princess who fought alongside her troops in battle. Rather rare for a woman to do 2500 years ago.” “I’ve never heard of her. Where was she from?” “Greece.” “Oh.” His handsome face was open and friendly. “She was pretty tough too. Fought alongside King Xerxes.” I shook my head. “I never heard of a Princess who was sort of—” “Badass.” “Not exactly the word I was looking for.” “But accurate.” He made a half-crooked smile. I lowered my head. “How do you know all this stuff?” “I read. Mostly obscure books.” He flashed a quick peek at my reaction. “You know. The kind the library sells for a buck-a-book in those little rolling carts at the front door.” I nodded as I studied him. Jake was turning into a very different person than the one I had imagined. He seemed like such a cliché bad-boy at first glance but the more I got to know him I realized how superficial my first impression had been. As something swirled inside of me, the energy in the room grew. Nervously I swallowed. “Are we done?” “Do you want a Band-Aid? I think I used my last pink Barbie one this morning, but my brother might have a green camo one left.” “Funny,” I smirked, and then pulled back trying to put some space between us, “but I think I’ll cover it with a little makeup.” “Suit yourself, but I bet you’d look darn cute with one right across that adorable chin of yours.” He touched the tip of my nose. My mouth went instantly dry. All the double dates I’d gone on were with gangly, goofy teen boys who were completely unsure of themselves. Jake wasn’t like that at all. He was self-assured and very intense. The way he looked at me unnerved and thrilled me all at once. Unsure of what the heck I was feeling, I went on offense. “You know it really freaked me out hearing your jaw crack like that. I honestly thought you were seriously hurt.” “I wasn’t.” I examined his black shirt, but the color made it impossible to see if there were any dried bloodstains; the only visible injuries I could see were his roughed up knuckles. “Well, I don’t believe you.” He cocked an eyebrow and snickered. “You think I’m hiding a broken rib?” “No, but that was quite a beating. You must be hurt way more than you’re letting on.” “Doubt it.” He lifted his chin. “I’ve been through worse.” In a tone that dripped with sarcasm, I asked, “So you don’t have any cuts or bruises?” “I didn’t say that, but I’ve been in a lot more pain than this.” I goaded, “Well, I still don’t believe you. You must have at least one bruise on you that’s worse than mine.” “Fine. See for yourself.” He turned away, crossed his arms and then smoothly pulled his black T-shirt over his head. My stomach quivered at the sight of his toned, muscular back. His smooth physique was like a dancer’s. I took in a deep breath trying to cool down, but that only made things worse when I inhaled his masculine scent. My head spun from the enticing aroma. The girl inside of me wanted to reach out and touch his tanned, warm skin. Leaning forward, I began to daydream. He was tall . . . and broad . . . and strong . . . I slipped off the sink. He looked over at me. I righted myself. “You okay?” “Yes.” I regained my self-control. That’s when I noticed a welt forming on his side. “Oh, crud. You are hurt.” I snapped out of my stupor, grabbed the towel, and instantly went into mothering mode. I shimmied down between him and the sink to examine the injury closer. “That looks bad. Turn.” He looked down at me nursing him and chuckled. Then I saw more. Bruises were forming all over his stomach. “Snap!” I shook my head. “These are awful. They must be painful.” Casually he held his hands above his head as he let me nurse him. “Like I said, I’ve gotten worse.” “Uh-huh.” I patted the spots of dried blood. He grinned down at me with a mischievous gleam in his eye. “Pain doesn’t affect me like it affects some people.” Catching his drift, I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really?” He smirked and nodded. I grabbed the bottle and poured a load of hydrogen peroxide onto the cloth. Then I pressed it against one of his open cuts. “Ouch!” He flinched. “Yeah. You’re real tough.” Jake flashed a dimpled smile. After I finished cleaning his cuts, I shook my head. “I don’t understand you at all. You start a fight, take on half the football team, for what? Gabe gave you a chance to walk away.” He stared at the wall. “You don’t seem like the type of person that cares about what other people think.” His head snapped around. “You think I care about that?” “No.” He nodded and then looked off. I glanced up at his somber brown eyes. “So why’d you do it then?” He debated for a moment, but this time he gave me an answer. “I wanted to get expelled.” “Why would you want to do that?” He paused before continuing. “I want to get off-the-grid.” I tilted my head, still puzzled. He exhaled. “I prefer to interact as little as possible with the rest of the world.” I smiled and nodded. “Oh, going for Brooding Teen of the Year Award?” He mumbled, “Yeah . . . something like that.” I stood back up. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt any worse. I thought you were in real trouble when you were slumped on the ground. You looked so worn-down and defeated. Then you jumped up. What changed?” His expression was earnest as he spoke the words. “Maybe I saw something to fight for.” He couldn’t possibly be talking about me, could he? I shook the absurd thought from my head. “Well, it was awesome. How you sprang up and fought to defend . . . me.” My voice trailed off. He looked straight into my eyes. “I wanted to return the favor.” I looked down at the cloth. “For what? This?” “No. For coming to my rescue, Princess.” I swallowed down the lump in my throat. “I help lots of people—” He started to move closer and my stomach flipped. His milk chocolate eyes looked deeply into mine. I pressed back against the sink. He bit his lip. I gulped, nervous I was about to receive my first kiss. As he edged closer, his eyes scanned my face—like he was seeking some sign of approval. I gawked at him like an idiot. All I could think about were those lips six inches away from mine, his warm breath’s hot and cold assault on my skin, and the charge that electrified the little bathroom. “Hey, you two all right in there?” Gabe called out. Damn! Stupid Gabe. Jake, rattled, pulled back. I squeaked out, “Yeah.” Gabe began walking down the hallway toward us. Jake quickly threw his shirt on bumping me once. The accidental contact sent a funny shiver up my spine. Flustered, I stepped out of the bathroom into the hallway. “Hey, are you okay?” He drew his eyebrows close together and gave me the once-over. “You’re all flush and stuff.” I touched at my cheek. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just hot in here.” I fanned myself, trying to cover for my embarrassment. I knew why I was hot, and it wasn’t from the temperature. “But—” “Gabe,” Jake interjected. “I’ve got something for you.” He moved down the hallway and drew Gabe’s attention away from me. Gabe, and then I followed. CHAPTER SEVEN Behind Hidden Masks I peeked around the doorframe and looked into a small bedroom. I did a double take. The room was spotless—in sharp contrast to the rest of the home. A small single bed sat tucked into the corner covered by a gray blanket, perfectly smooth, like in a military barrack. Next to that was a nightstand with open shelves. On the top shelf was a music box. Below that was a small collection of old books, neatly arranged in descending order according to height. The room smelled wonderful—like it had been cleaned with lemony furniture polish. On the opposite side of the room was a worn-out, pressboard bureau with chunks of wood missing from the corners. Jake stood in front of it holding a shirt in one hand while he rummaged through a drawer with the other. Gabe eyed the room. “Your furniture has seen better days.” “The furniture . . .” Jake casually glanced around. “Yeah. The last tenants were evicted and abandoned all this stuff.” Gabe looked embarrassed; quickly he added, “But it’s a neat room. I mean that—literally.” Jake chuckled. “Yeah, my father is sort of a freak when it comes to keeping things clean.” I looked back down the hallway and eyed the rest of the chaotic home. Maybe he stays here with his mom, I thought. Then again, I didn’t think so. The whole place had more of a manly, guy-type feel to it. “Here.” Jake pulled out a small, black concert T-shirt and handed it to me. “This one should fit you.” “Thanks.” “No problem.” Jake nodded. “Here you go, Gabe.” He tossed a shirt to him. “Uh, thanks.” Perplexed, Gabe looked down at the black concert T-shirt. “But I don’t need this.” He tossed it back. Jake snagged the shirt, and then pointed toward Gabe’s side. “I think somebody might notice that stain.” He tossed the shirt back. Gabe grabbed it and then twisted around to look. “Crap.” He pulled at his light blue dress shirt. “What is that? I cringed. “Blood.” Jake nodded, calmly. “Yeah, probably mine.” “Terrific,” Gabe grumbled. “You can change in the bathroom.” Jake nodded toward the hallway. Gabe turned and walked off. Jake headed toward the bedroom door. He put his hand on the doorknob, gave me an odd look, and then took in a deep breath. “You can change in here.” I nervously mumbled, “Thanks.” When he moved to close the door behind him, I reached out and stopped him. “Jake. Sorry. Do you have headache medicine?” I rubbed at my forehead desperate to curb the pounding in my head. He nodded. “I’ll check.” As the hollow core door closed, the wood scraped along the doorframe. I undid the few remaining buttons on my tattered shirt. After I took off my shirt, I looked down at my white, lacy bra. I felt very self-conscious being in a guy’s room with no shirt on. Quickly I hustled to cover my semi-nakedness. As I pulled the shirt over my head, I could smell a blend of Jake’s scent mixed with some sort of really neat fabric softener. I held the shirt closer to my face and sniffed again. The aromas of cotton and him made my stomach start doing loop-the-loops again. I glanced around the barren room. The only personal items he owned were the old books and that beautiful music box. Curious, I tilted my head and examined it. It was fine wood, intricately carved. As I opened the lid, a tiny beautiful ballerina demurely rose. She was dressed in a delicate, pink skirt reminiscent of a prima ballerina. I stared at it for a moment, perplexed. Why would a guy, especially a rough and tumble one, have this sitting beside his bed? It seemed very out of place. A strange unhappy feeling, akin to jealousy, surged within me. Does he have a girlfriend and did she gave it to him? I flashed a quick glance toward the bedroom door. I would have liked to turn the knob and heard what music it played, but I didn’t want to get caught snooping. Gently, I lowered the lid. I headed toward the cracked mirror hanging on the wall. As I examined my chin, I considered how best to hide the welt. I grabbed some makeup from my purse and dabbed on a layer of foundation. After I had finished, I stared at the odd cream-colored section that stood out over my fair skin. Since I’d woken up late that morning, I hadn’t put on any makeup. The small section with foundation stood out like a billboard. I decided to make up my whole face and blend everything together. I applied eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, and blush until I looked better suited for a night out, rather than a typical day at school. I took one last long look around Jake’s bedroom and felt a little funny. His home life seemed rough. I wondered why. As I pulled the door open and stepped forward, I had to stop short because there he was, waiting for me. Casually leaning up against the wall, he looked up. His eyes widened, he smiled, and then out popped that cute dimple. “It fits.” “Yes.” I played with the shirt hem in my finger. “Thanks.” “I’m glad.” “You’re very thoughtful.” “I found some Tylenol.” He picked up a glass of water from the floor. “Is that okay?” “Yes!” I lunged forward—and in an unladylike way—I grabbed the pills from his hand and gobbled them down like an addict. He chuckled. The only way Jake could have endeared himself more to me at that moment was if he had brought me Midol dipped in chocolate. He watched me for a moment. “Thank you very much,” I nodded, “for everything.” “You’re welcome,” he said warmly. “I don’t know what would have happened if I went to class looking the way I did.” He stifled a chuckle. “Yeah, that would’ve been very…interesting.” I smiled. Jake didn’t act like a phony; his actions appeared to me to be quite genuine. “I want to thank you again for risking your life.” I twisted the end of the shirt in my finger. “It was very brave of you to throw yourself over that wall to save foolish me from tumbling head first into the garbage bin.” He shrugged and lowered his eyes. “I did what any guy would do.” I scoffed. “Very few men would do that.” His shoulders lifted. I kicked at the floor, unsure what to say next. “Um, my dad volunteers at the local boys club. Maybe you might like to go and hang out—with him—I mean with them at the skate park or something.” He shrugged his shoulders like he didn’t care, but when he looked up again, I swore there was something in his eyes—like a glint of hope. We could hear Gabe in the bathroom as he turned off the water and then opened the medicine cabinet. Jake rolled his head toward the bathroom door and called out, “You need something, Gabe?” The bathroom cabinet quickly snapped close. “No,” Gabe responded, tersely. Jake raised his eyebrows. I wondered too. Why would straight-laced Gabe go looking through someone else’s medicine cabinet? A second later, Gabe appeared wearing a faded black concert T-shirt. He looked so different. It took all my willpower to hold back the laughter that wanted to burst forth through my clenched teeth. I pressed my lips together and pinched back a smile. “You look . . . good.” Mockingly, Gabe cocked his head. “No, you do.” I stifled another giggle. I didn’t want to embarrass him; I knew he must have felt as uncomfortable as I did. Jake glanced at him and smirked. Gabe looked down at the concert T-shirt. “So you listen to this old band?” “No.” Jake shook his head. “Never heard of them.” “Then why do you have their concert T-shirt in your drawer?” I asked, perplexed. “Salvation Army. It had closed for the night when we got there, but some lady was dropping off boxes of old clothes. She saw us milling around and offered a bunch of stuff to us.” He looked embarrassed. I felt bad for him and had no clue what to say. “…That was nice of her.” I forced a smile. “Yeah, we needed clothes and other stuff.” He let out a long breath. “And like they say, beggars can’t be choosers.” I wanted to ask him why he had no clothing, but Gabe spoke first. “I might have some old clothes you can have.” “Thanks, man, but I’m fine.” Jake waved him off and tugged at his shirt. “This style sends a better message anyway.” With all the black he wore, I wondered if the message he wanted it to send was stay away. Gabe awkwardly looked around. “Um . . . How you feeling Simplicity?” “Better. How does my chin look?” I posed my face under the hallway light for them to examine better. I wanted their opinion on my cover-up makeup job. “Can you see the welt?” They stared at me, but neither of them answered. I looked at their weird expressions. “You can’t tell I’ve got a bruise, right?” Gabe cleared his throat. “No, Simplicity. When they look at you, they won’t notice that at all.” I exhaled. “Oh, good.” Jake and Gabe flashed a smile at each other. We stood there for a second just hanging out. It was that curious kind of silence where no one speaks but everyone feels comfortable. I thought it was cool how the morning’s events had connected the three of us. I’d known Gabe since I was a little girl. My dad had played on the men’s basketball team with his father for years. I loved his mom. She visited constantly after my mom died. She was such a blessing. She taught my dad how to cook and do laundry. All the stuff he had to learn to do, now that he was a single dad. Gabe would tag along, and we would play checkers or cards to pass the time. I liked Gabe, but I always felt like there was some hidden part of him he held back. Today, though, I was seeing a deeper side to his personality. Jake, on the other hand, was an enigma. There was a selfless part about him that I really liked, but then again, I had only just met him. He clearly had a difficult home life. However, my father said I had good intuition about people, and so I usually trusted what my gut told me. My dad called it my “Spidey-sense.” Jake smoothly pushed himself off the wall and walked down the hallway. “Do you guys want something to drink?” Gabe perked right up. “What? Beer or something?” Jake cocked an eyebrow at him. “No. I meant water.” “Water?” Gabe slouched. “No, thanks.” As we headed back into the kitchen, I scanned the house, hoping it might reveal more about this mysterious new guy. Looking embarrassed, Jake compulsively straightened things as we walked. “We moved in sort of quickly, so I haven’t really had time to clean everything.” I nodded. “My house can get messy too, and we’ve lived there for years,” I said trying to reassure him. He gave me a smile. “Did your father find a job yet?” Gabe asked. “My father . . .” Jake looked thrown by the ordinary question. Jake cleared his throat. “Yeah. My dad found work at a machine shop over in Derrybrook. Thanks to his cousin.” I smiled. “Where’d you move from?” “Umm . . .” As I stepped back into the living room, my head snapped up. Behind the worn-out recliner was the butt of a gun. I stepped to the side and got a better look at it. It was a long-scoped hunting rifle. Most girls would have no clue exactly what type of gun it was—but I did. I’d gone to enough gun shows with my dad to tell the difference between a Glock 17 and a 9mm Smith and Wesson. It was beyond stupid not to have it locked up in a gun cabinet. Then something else caught my eye; underneath was a box. Without Jake seeing me, I squinted and read the label: 5.56 Nato Pmc X-Tac 62-grade. Green Tip Light—ARMOR PIERCING AMMO. As fear raced through me, the hairs went up on the back of my neck. I knew what my dad had called that type of bullet—cop killers. That ammo was dangerous; the rounds could easily pierce through bulletproof vests. I had thought they were illegal in this state. As my anger rose, I tried to remain calm and not show any emotion. Then I realized Jake still hadn’t responded to my question and now I wanted some answers. I turned and feigned an angelic smile. “Where did you say you moved from?” He eyed me cautiously. “Umm . . . Phoenix.” It may have been by changed attitude, but his answer seemed suspicious. I quickly thought of a way to trip him up. I recalled the wall map from my geography class, and lightened my tone. “Oh, really? My cousins live in Phoenix.” —a fib— “We went to visit them a few times. It’s such a beautiful city right on the edge of the Colorado River. What a pretty view that city has overlooking the Grand Canyon. They took me for a hike along the rim every morning. Did you hike there much?” He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes. I hiked there.” “Oh.” I smiled and nodded as I kept my cool. Jake never lived in Phoenix or he would’ve known that the Grand Canyon was over two hundred miles north—nowhere near the city. Quickly, I calculated the distance. It would be at least a three-hour drive each way. He would have to know that if he had ever lived in the city of Phoenix. Clearly—he was lying. CHAPTER EIGHT Suspicion Between the gun, the ammo, and Jake’s evasiveness, my mind screamed—get out of there. The owner of that gun could be home at any minute! “Well, the assembly should be ending soon. We should head back. Don’t you think so, Gabe?” I winked at him—without Jake seeing. “Yeah.” Gabe nodded and turned toward the door. “We should go.” Jake shrugged. “If you want.” We all headed to the car. Jake came over to the passenger door and flashed me a smile before he sat down. The ride back to school was very different from the one here. I was still nervous, but for a different reason. I had no idea who this guy was or why he would lie about something like where he had lived. As I sat ramrod straight, a thousand different what if’s flashed through my head. “So what grade are you in?” Jake asked me, unaware of my changed attitude toward him. “Junior,” I casually answered, doing my best not to sound anxious. “You’re a junior?” Jake tilted his head, surprised. “Yes.” We hit a small rut and he moved his hand onto my lower back to hold me steady once again. “You seem older—more mature.” “Well, perhaps I just appear that way because everyone else in high school is so immature.” Gabe chuckled. “You’re a pistol, Simplicity.” Lousy choice of words Gabe, I mentally grumbled to myself. “Maybe we’ll be in a few classes together,” Jake added. “How old are you, Jake?” Gabe asked. “Seventeen.” Gabe nodded. “Well, I doubt you’ll be in any of her classes,” Gabe joked, “she’s a nerd-herder. They’re too smart for the rest of us.” I shook my head and scolded him playfully, “Gabe, I don’t mind you thinking I’m intelligent, but I do mind you thinking I’m a snob.” “I apologize.” He grinned and placed his hand on his chest. “I didn’t mean to suggest that you were an elitist. It’s just that our little minds happen to feel intimidated by you and your big-brained friends. That’s all.” “Big brains,” I scoffed. “The human brain is an average one point five kilograms and scientific studies show there is no correlation between intelligence and mass.” Gabe rolled his eyes toward Jake. “See what I mean?” Jake laughed. Gabe smiled and flashed his gorgeous blue eyes in my direction. “Thank you for proving my point with your rebuttal, Simplicity.” I huffed, good-naturedly. We hit a pothole and my head smacked into the car roof. I groaned. My skull ached something fierce. “Are you alright?” Jake placed his hand on my head to protect it. The sensation of his fingers touching my hair felt really good. I straightened up and stayed on guard. “Yes. Quite fine.” Twenty minutes ago, I’d thought this guy was considerate and charming. He’d risked his own life throwing himself over the ledge to rescue me from that fall. He’d been thoughtful getting Gabe and I clothes. His actions spoke volumes about his character. It made me think he was a nice young man, despite his bad-boy attire, but now I was conflicted by a multitude of different signals. We hit another pothole, but this time I managed to react in time. On edge, I flashed a look of irritation at Gabe. “Sorry,” Gabe apologized. “This side of the road is junked.” “Here.” Jake placed his hand on my right shoulder, and then drew me back down onto his chest. “No need to crack your noggin.” The awkward position plus the reclining bucket seat of the sports car put me in a tricky position. I had to lean on Jake’s body semi-sideways. Unsure how to handle this, I tried to hold myself steady. Jake put his hand on my back again. I stiffened. “Why are you so tense? You weren’t like that on the ride here.” Jake flashed a smile. I mumbled a nonsensical response. Slowly, his thumb began to rub in small circles on my lower back. Crap! Gabe shot a warning look at Jake. “Hey, don’t get too cozy there.” Jake smirked, leaned closer and whispered through my hair, “So I take it you don’t have a boyfriend?” Oh, double crap! Gabe’s head snapped. “Why do you want to know that?” Jake floated out a cool response. “Just making conversation.” “Well, stick to the weather.” The tension inside the car was as thick as New England clam chowder. After several minutes of trying to hover at a sharp angle, my head started to wobble. Slowly, I had to lower my check onto Jake’s shoulder; the sensations that raced through my body overwhelmed my already spinning head. My mind warned, “Be wary,” while my skin that touched his warm body yelled, “Woo-hoo!” Man, I hate hormones. Gabe stopped at a red light. “You were pretty hot charging into the fight like that, Simplicity. You looked like one of those female cops on CSI.” I blushed. “Thanks.” Gabe flashed one of his endearing smiles. “I figure we should head over to the old west wing where there are no security cameras. Maybe sneak around to the shop doors. What do you think?” “Sounds logical to me.” “Good.” Feigning sarcasm, he added, “If anybody knows how to think like a thief, it would be the police chief’s daughter.” Shoot! Immediately, I felt Jake’s whole body stiffen underneath me. “Your dad’s a cop?” “Yes,” I said cautiously, trying to gauge his reaction. He shifted uncomfortably. Stupid Gabe. This was information I didn’t want Jake to have at the moment, especially now with me sitting on his lap in a vulnerable position. “I didn’t know that.” Hastily, Jake removed his hand from my back and placed it on the armrest. I was happy and sad at the same time. “I wouldn’t worry about her father. He’s gonna love you for saving her life. I’m the one who knocked her out.” Gabe looked at himself in the rearview mirror. “What do you think he’ll do to me, Simplicity?” Jake’s jaw tightened and his hand reached for the door handle. I tried to stay calm. “I wouldn’t be sweating that right now, Gabe.” Gabe smiled at me, oblivious to what I was worried about. “You’re not going to say anything to him, right?” he prodded. “Umm . . .” I was going to do just that. My plan was as soon as I got back into the safety of the school, I would immediately call my dad. I cringed knowing I would be in for a doozy of a punishment for skipping class and leaving school grounds, but the dangerous situation I stumbled upon needed to be looked into. I mulled over the softest way to confess to my dad while telling him about everything I had found. “Simplicity?” Gabe nudged me. “Seriously. Your dad scares the crap out of me, being a cop and all. Plus, he can be a total hard-ass. I’m worried he’s gonna come down on me like a ton of bricks.” I went into over-the-top acting mode. “Of course—I’m not going to tell him anything.” Gabe nodded, but Jake eyed me. Trying to sell my performance, I smiled, perhaps a little too wide. Jake turned and stared out the car window. His breathing rapidly sped up. Triple Crap! CHAPTER NINE Safe When we pulled into the school’s parking lot, I immediately hopped out. I hustled toward the gymnasium where the assembly was being held. “We should head toward the far side of the building,” I called back over my shoulder. After rounding the corner, I looked through the glass to see if the assembly had ended. It hadn’t. The boys had to jog to catch up to me. I glanced at Gabe on my right and Jake on my left; we were quite the sight—all three of us dressed in black, concert T-shirts. Gabe eyeballed me, eyeballing him. “We look like triplets.” I stifled a giggle. “I know I’m gonna get a ration of crap when the guys get a load of me.” “You look good. It suits you.” “I do?” Gabe sounded surprised. “Yeah. Don’t you think so, Jake?” I asked, trying to keep the everything-is-fine charade going long enough to get inside. He didn’t respond. He just stared straight ahead. I searched his face, but his expression was unreadable. Inside, kids began to pour out into the hallway. “Well, are we going to go for it?” Gabe asked. Confidently I stated, “Yes.” I led the way back around the campus to the far-off buildings, hoping all the teachers would still be at the assembly as they slowly filed out of the gym. We hustled across the walkway, trying to appear casual as we snuck over to the doors outside the shop wing. Quickly, I peeked in the door’s window to see if there were any teachers. When I saw none, I waved frantically at a girl who had been in my freshman music class. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name. As she approached, I pointed down at the locked door. She looked at me and then my shirt, and tilted her head. Oh, great! Here we go. When she saw Gabe and the new kid behind me, all dressed the same, her mouth fell open. “Open the door,” I mouthed, trying to break her from her stupor. She shook her head, stepped forward, and pushed the release lever. “Thanks.” I smiled and stepped in. She ignored me completely. Instead, she flashed a smile at Gabe. I rolled my eyes. Gabe smiled right back at her. “Thanks.” Gently, he waved his finger in the air. “I’ve seen you around, your name is . . .” He floated out the invite like a pro. Her eyes widened. “Sylvia.” “Yes, Sylvia. That’s right. Thank you so much.” He furrowed his brow, yet remained dashingly handsome. “I’m sure you won’t tell anyone you saw us come in this door.” He shook his head, like he was he giving her a little Jedi mind trick. Her head mimicked his. “No. No, of course not.” He flashed her one of his melt-em’-like-butter smiles; she beamed. I shook my head. Normally, I would have been offended on behalf of the rest of the female population that one of our own had so easily succumbed to this alpha male’s charm—but because it was my posterior his magnetism was saving—I had to keep my mouth shut. We walked down the hall and blended into a group of students headed to class. Gabe looked relieved, while Jake walked like a zombie. “Well, gentlemen, I think we can safely say we ran the gauntlet and survived without getting caught.” I spoke in a light, comical voice. “And you’ve both helped to make this my most interesting first day at school.” Jake didn’t respond, but Gabe laughed. “Yeah, it’s been fun. Let’s just never repeat it, okay?” I smiled. “Agreed.” “I’m sorry we fought earlier.” Gabe turned to Jake and offered him his hand. “It’s been good getting to know you, man.” Jake, still in a haze, stared at Gabe for a second. Slowly, Jake reached out and took Gabe’s outstretched hand and shook it. “Yeah, good getting to know you too.” “I’ll see you around, Simplicity.” Gabe waved as he turned to go. “Yeah, see ya.” As I watched him shoot off down the rear stairwell, I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled down to my dad’s contact number. I puffed out a quick breath and glanced over my shoulder. Jake still hovered. He looked white as a sheet. When I moved forward, he followed. Feeling safe within the familiar walls of my school, I turned the corner right at the elbow of the long, back hallway that led from the shop wing to the main building. I wanted to shake Jake loose and go call my dad. I turned and faced him squarely. “Jake, since it’s your first day here, you need to go to the office and get your schedule.” I waited for a response, but his blank expression didn’t fill me with much confidence. “Jake? Do you know where that is?” Oddly, he scanned the area and then responded dryly, “No.” “Well, it’s in the main building.” I pointed down the rear hallway with my cell phone. His head snapped as his attention focused on the phone in my hand. “Who are you calling?” I pulled my phone back and covered the name. “No one.” He stepped toward me. “Are you going to call your dad and tell him what happened?” At first, I thought he was referring to Gabe punching me. Trying to keep it light, I joked, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. My father likes Gabe’s parents too much to beat him up too badly—he should survive.” Jake glared at the wall for a second and raked his hand through his thick, dark hair. “Please, don’t tell your father.” “Why not?” His menacing brow lowered. “You know why.” “No, I don’t. I have to get going.” He started frantically patting himself down. “Damn it, where’s my cell phone.” His face went pale. I took a few steps back. He gritted his teeth and stepped closer. “I need to talk to you.” “Sorry. I don’t want to talk. I’ve got class.” I started to turn, but he caught me by the elbow. I looked down at his large hand wrapped around my arm. “What are you doing?” He drew his face in close, but spoke softly. “I saw you eyeing that gun in my living room.” I swallowed. “So what?” “You’re a cop’s daughter.” I tried to pull my arm back. “Yes, I’m a cop’s daughter. So I hope you realize you’re about to get into serious trouble if you don’t let go of my arm—right now.” “I need to talk to you.” “Too bad.” “Damn it. Don’t make me do this.” “Don’t make you do what?” Jake clenched his jaw and tightened his grip as he scanned behind my shoulder again. I turned my head and followed his gaze. Suddenly, it dawned on me what he saw—no one else was in the secluded back hallway. CRAP!!! Realizing my mistake too late, I turned to bolt, but like a hunter after its prey, he ambushed me. I tried to scream, but his hand clamped over my mouth. He snagged me around the waist and pulled me back up against his chest. I shrieked but his large hand muffled the sound. I pulled at his fingers, but they wouldn’t budge. I squirmed trying to run, but his arms just tightened around me. Frantically, he looked around the hallway, then he picked me up and carried me into the janitor’s closet. I freaked. It was pitch-black in the little room. Fear raced through me. For a split second, I lost my sense of equilibrium. As my head spun, it felt like I was tumbling down into a black hole. Kicking and flailing in the dark, I struggled to break free. I knocked over what sounded like a bucket and a mop. “Stop fighting me.” My heart pounded in my chest and my legs went numb with terror. I fought back hard, but his powerful arms just continued to pin me hard against his unyielding body. His chest heaved with each breath. He stood firm and just held me in place—as if he was letting me burn myself out. After a minute of me vainly attempting to escape from his vice-like grip, he towed me back toward the wall. “Don’t squirm,” he said. I could feel his shoulder jerk as he searched for something along the wall every few inches. When he found what he was looking for, he pushed the light switch up with his elbow. An eerie fluorescent-blue light flickered on overhead. He continued to hold me tightly against his chest. As his body settled around me, his breathing slowed. I didn’t know what the hell he intended to do. I scanned the shelves across the room looking for a weapon, but saw nothing except innocuous cleaning supplies. How I wished for a nice heavy hammer. As my body shook with an intense fear, I cursed myself. How had I been so stupid? I’d totally misjudged this guy. I never expected someone who appeared to be so nice to change so rapidly. His muscles, rigid and tense, felt like stone. I struggled some more, but the hold he had on me was so tight I couldn’t move. I tried to formulate a plan of escape, but my mind awash in terror, drew a blank. I tried to make sense of it all. What is he thinking? What is he planning to do? I looked down at my body and my heart skipped a beat. Fearing the worst, I panicked and began to hyperventilate. In a soothing voice he whispered, “Try to calm down.” I fought to catch my breath knowing fainting right now would only make things worse. After a moment, I regained my self-control and my breathing returned to normal. Once recovered, I jerked and tried to break free again. Through his hand, I garbled, “Let go of me!” “I will, but I want to talk to you first.” Slowly, he loosened his grip around my waist and I took full advantage. I planted my left foot down on the ground, and then with my right foot I horse-kicked straight at his groin. He shifted his hip and I missed. “Damn, girl. Don’t kill me.” Quickly, he snagged me again only tighter. I ended up in a worse position than before. Now he had both my legs pinned down. I was furious at him and at myself. Here was someone I’d started to trust, and he’d totally blindsided me. How did my intuition not see this coming? “Simplicity,” he said softly. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk to you.” As my body squirmed, I shrieked through his hand, “Put me down!” “If I do, will you promise not to scream and take off until you’ve heard me out?” What a ridiculous question! Right now—with how angry I was—he should be more concerned about keeping his manhood intact. He tilted his head and searched my face. “I didn’t hear your answer.” Through his hand I garbled, “How the hell can you hear my answer with your damn hand clamped over my mouth?” His eyebrows squished together. “I have no clue what you just said.” Frustrated, I stopped struggling. It was obvious he could physically overpower me. I analyzed the map of the school in my head and calculated the distance to the nearest classroom. The shop and art classes in this wing were spaced far apart and they had all that loud industrial equipment. Even with his hand removed from my mouth, I wasn’t sure anyone would hear my screams until it was too late. I weighed my options. How would a hostage negotiator handle this situation? But I couldn’t think of any damn TV episodes where something like this had ever happened. Taking a long breath, I tried to calm down. Right now, my level head was more valuable than his brawn, and keeping it in the game was my best chance to navigate out of this madness. His breathing slowed down matching mine. “Do you promise not to scream or try to escape?” Reluctantly, I nodded. Slowly he removed his hand from my mouth. “Let go of me,” I said coldly. “No.” He kept a tight grip. “Not until I’ve said what I need to say.” His arms crossed over mine, bear-hugged me into submission. “Well, then get on with it,” I snapped. “I saw you eyeing that gun and ammo.” His mouth was inches away from my ear. “Are you going to say anything to your father about them?” Say anything to my dad? Now? After all this? Yes, of course! What did you think? Was what I wanted to say, but I stopped myself from giving a rash answer. I took in a deep breath before coolly responding, “I was just admiring it—that’s all.” “I saw you scrutinizing it. I figure from your reaction you know it’s illegal.” Is that why Jake dragged me into this closet? He was worried about me telling my father? My breathing slowed and my heart stopped racing when I realized he hadn’t planned to sexually assault me. Still I was confused. If this was about the ammo, why do this? His dad would’ve been the one in trouble, not him. I had no idea what was going on in his mixed-up head, so I tried to play the whole thing off as if it were nothing. “Even if I told my father about it, it’s not a big deal. In this state, it’s like a fifty-dollar fine or something. He might not even bother with it.” He leaned back on the wall and it took me with him. The position forced my body to lie back onto his. Softly, he murmured, “Why don’t I believe you?” Because I hate lying, even to save my life. I remained silent, waiting to find out what he planned to do next. “I shouldn’t’ve tried to help you,” he muttered as he stared across the room. “I’m an idiot…I thought you were just a cute teenage girl.” I wanted to agree with that statement—that he was an idiot—but kept my mouth shut instead. We stayed there for a moment in this strange deadlock. My adrenaline surge waned. With all my energy sapped, my muscles began to grow weak. As his body softened, he rested his chin on my shoulder; his body now held me, more than restrained me. I exhaled. He whispered into my ear, “Simplicity, please, don’t tell your father.” I’d seen the fierce fighter that lay barely contained below the surface of this young man. I knew that something wasn’t right with this picture. Still my curiosity overrode my self-preservation. “Why shouldn’t I tell my father?” “I can’t tell you.” I snapped in anger. “So you drag me off into a closet and then expect me to trust you?” “Fine. Be like everyone else,” he barked back. “I know you’ll just lie to my face and then hurt me—” He stopped. I wondered what that meant. After he took in a long, deep breath, he softened his tone and began again. “I know you shouldn’t trust me, but I did save your life today, if that means anything at all.” “You could also say you started the chain of events that almost took it.” “You’re right.” He knocked his head hard, back into the wall. “I have no clue what the hell I’m doing. I think it’s the right thing to do, but it never turns out that way.” We stayed there for another agonizingly long minute—him, lost in thought; me, growing more confused. Wanting to break the tension, I quipped, “So was this your brilliant plan? To keep me in a closet forever? Start a life here, maybe?” “No.” Deep pain quivered in his voice. “But, if you plan to tell your dad, can I ask one thing?” “What?” “Give me a couple hours’ warning.” His warped reasoning was getting stranger by the minute. “A warning?” “Yes. Before you tell anyone about the ammo, the gun…or me.” I balled my hands into fists. Logic told me to run straight out of here and turn Jake in—though for what I didn’t quite know—yet something gnawed at me. Who was he protecting, and why? Boldly, I asked, “What if I said I planned to tell my dad as soon as you let me go? What would you do then?” He swallowed. “I don’t want to have to do it, but if you’re asking me to choose between you or sacrificing my family,” he looked across the room, “I guess I’d have to take that twine over there and tie you up.” I froze. I knew from his tone—he was serious. “Is that why you dragged me into this closet? To give yourself time to escape?” “If I couldn’t talk you out of it, then yes, I planned to tie you up and take off.” “That’s all you intended to do.” “It was.” “So this was just you trying to save your own skin?” “No! I want to be done with all this.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “But it’s not just me I’m worried about.” The strange, yet smart young man who looked out of place, lied about where he’d lived, and had illegal firearms casually lying around his home were all things that shouted a warning as high as a signal fire on a mountaintop. My mind screamed, Don’t listen to him, but my intuition leaned in the opposite direction. “I’m not sure I should believe you.” Jake’s voice became soft. “If they find us again, we’ll have to run.” He leaned forward and rested his chin on my shoulder. “Simplicity, I don’t want to run anymore.” My cheek shivered. Tenderly, his hand came up and touched the side of my face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His soft words, gentle touch, and the genuine warmth in his expression began to break me down, but I mustered my indignation and countered, “Are you going to release me?” Immediately, he let go. “I’m sorry.” He put his hands up. His expression filled with remorse. “I’m sorry I dragged you in here.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry I scared you. I just panicked. I was just hoping—” He stopped himself and straightened up. “Hoping what?” He took in a deep breath. “That there was still a chance to stay.” I shook my head and sarcastically cracked, “Well, before you drag me off into a closet again—ask me first.” A faint glint of hope flashed across his face before it quickly disappeared. “Will there be a next time?” Given the dangerous circumstances, I should’ve just lied and gotten out of there, but for some reason I felt compelled to tell him the truth. “No, Jake. There won’t be—I plan to tell my father.” Immediately, Jake’s countenance changed: his jaw tightened, and his breathing grew ragged. His pupils dilated, growing dark and ominous. As his facials muscles tensed, his expression turned bitter. Yet deep in those tormented eyes, I saw nothing but pain—he looked like a wounded animal. I huffed out an exasperated breath as I cursed my bleeding heart. “What are you running from?” “You don’t want to know.” I crossed my arms. “Then why should I believe you really want to stop running? That this isn’t just a trick.” He looked around the room. “After I found out your dad was cop, I was about to bolt out of the car. I could’ve asked Gabe to pull over and let me out. I guess I probably should have.” He shook his head. “I wanted to . . . but I didn’t.” I crossed my arms. “Why not?” His eyes focused on mine. “I guess I don’t want to go.” I shook my head and turned away. “Simplicity,” he pushed himself off the wall and stood in front of me, “do you have to tell your father?” I pursed my lips, unsure what was the right thing to do. My dad and I were so close; there were never any secrets between us. Gently Jake touched my upper arm. “Please, don’t,” he whispered. “I don’t want anything to happen to my family.” My defense shields crumbled—my family meant everything to me. Damn it! His words and the brokenness in his gaze melted my heart. Slowly, the tension in my shoulders dropped. “Fine,” I begrudgingly huffed. “I’ll give you a warning.” His eyes searched my face—as if his ears didn’t believe what they heard. I stepped back and placed my hands on my hips. “But right now I’m putting you on notice. If I see you do anything suspicious—fighting, cutting class, or even throwing a recyclable into the regular trash—I’m making a beeline straight to my dad.” I leaned in and arched one eyebrow. “Got it?” His gaze drifted over me and he absently said, “You’re adorable, you know.” I pulled my head back and glared. “Don’t you dare try to sweet-talk me now.” He backed up and raised his hands. “I wasn’t trying to sugar talk you. I apologize. I didn’t mean to say that out loud—I mean—I didn’t think that.” I narrowed my eyes. Nervously, he stood straight at attention and gave me a sharp military salute, just like a soldier. “I’ll follow your orders to the letter, ma’am.” I tilted my head; He didn’t appear to be teasing. I shook my head as another layer of mystery increased his already mysterious persona. I glanced around the room. My mind was still unsure, but my instincts felt right. “Okay then, I’ll give you a warning.” “Not many people have ever trusted me like this.” His genuine expression softened me further. Hesitantly, I held out my hand as I offered to shake on our lopsided deal. Surprised, he looked at it for a second then reached out and delicately raised my hand from below. For a second, I thought he was about to bend down and kiss it, but then he stopped. Instead, we awkwardly shook hands up and down like a seesaw. Firmly, I asked, “Well, are you going to let me leave now?” He nodded, walked to the door, and then swung it wide open as he stood to the side and held it open. When I stepped out into the hallway, I took in a long, deep breath of the cool air, grateful to see the light of day again. I realized my fear that morning about surviving the first day of school wasn’t so far-fetched. I turned, and our eyes met. Checking my instincts again, I wanted to make sure it was the right decision. I could swear he knew what I was thinking. He stepped back about ten feet. “We’re out in the open, now.” He gestured around us. “You can change your mind,” he swallowed, “if you want to.” I deliberated. He took in a sharp breath. “Is that what you want to do?” He watched me intensely. “Change your mind?” I took a long, hard look at him. He was a paradox wrapped in an enigma. There was more to his story that I wanted to know, but now wasn’t the time to ask. I didn’t know if I was being a complete fool or not, but the intuition I clung to gave me a clear answer. “No, Jake. I’m not going to change my mind.” His face lifted. “Thanks.” I nodded. He glanced around, searching. I pointed toward the corridor that led back to the main office. He nodded. We stood for a moment, silently looking at each other—the air thick with tension. My eyes never wavered in intensity as I gazed straight into his. He surrendered first and looked away. He stepped back, turned, and without another word, walked off. As I watched him go, I wasn’t sure if I had just made one of the biggest mistakes of my short sixteen years of life. I didn’t know what torments haunted this young man, but I hoped that if he honestly wanted a fresh start—here in Stony Creek—he could make one. And I guess, at that moment, I was going to let him. CHAPTER TEN Once Upon a Time Jake Hanson After surviving his first day at Stony Creek High School, Jake Hanson walked along the edge of the busy road and headed home. As he approached his driveway, he noticed the mailbox was full. He figured it was stuffed with nothing but junk mail since no one from his hometown—four hours away—had any clue where he and his brother lived now. Sorting through the envelopes, Jake found himself glaring at an ad. It was of a happy family swimming in their new pool. He scoffed. The advertisement looked straight out of a home and garden magazine. All perfect people, smiling broadly with whiter-than-white teeth, carefree and happy: the picture-perfect postcard of the ideal American family. Jake walked along the gravel driveway toward the place he now called home. He stopped and looked at the run-down shack. How different it was from the stately manor he had once lived. The last five years on the run felt like a deep dark hole that would never end. How he wished he could stop his descent and wake up from this hellish nightmare. As Jake tossed the junk mail into the garbage, a letter from the school caught his eye. Quickly, he opened it up. It was nothing but an innocuous welcome letter. “We wish to welcome Jake Hanson…” He shook his head at the irony. As the wind whistled through the trees, he looked up into the cloudless blue sky and tried to recollect the last time he’d heard someone say his real name. A painful bitter memory broke through his tough façade when he remembered who it was—his mom. Jake closed his eyes and began to remember how that horrible day had begun five years ago… CHAPTER ELEVEN The Place He Once Called Home ~The Morning of August 4, 2009~ “Who goes there?” Seven-year-old Charles called out to him from beneath the homemade fort William had built for him in the dining room. “Is it an ogre?” Playing along, William knelt down, lifted up the blanket, and peeked underneath a corner. In the darkness, two bright eyes blinked at him. Acting the part, he replied in a deep voice, “It is I, Pirate Paul Bunyan.” William could hear their nanny, Angeline, laughing quietly from the other room. Charles responded by trying to match his big brother’s manly tone. “Have you come to steal our treasure?” “No, sir. I mean you no harm. I am looking for the evil sorcerer who stole my horse. Have you seen him?” “Yes.” Out popped a little hand holding a six-inch toy horse. “Here he is.” William chuckled. “Thanks.” Charles made a boyish grunt. Angeline came in with two glasses of milk. “I thought Paul Bunyan was a lumberjack.” “He is.” William nodded. “I’ve been asked to play the part of his long-lost pirate son, Paul Bunyan Junior.” “Oh . . .” She nodded and handed William the glass of milk. Speaking toward the fort, she asked, “So I take it Charles wants me to finish reading that book to him tonight?” William smiled. “I’d say so.” Angeline walked over to the tent and called out, “Supply delivery for a Charles Crawford.” Charles jumped out and his curly mop top of hair flopped to the side. “Thank you, ma’am.” “You’re welcome.” She mussed his dark-brown hair and then headed back into the kitchen. Charles gulped his milk as William carefully put his down on a coaster on the walnut side table. William glanced down to see Mack, their new puppy, trot by carrying one of his mother’s high-heeled shoes in its mouth. The dog had chewed through the back of the leather leaving the shoe a mangled, soggy wreck. “You better hope that was an old pair of shoes.” William rubbed Mack’s brown fur behind his crooked ear. After Charles finished his milk, he headed over to the Lincoln Logs and picked up a heaping mound. Then he dropped the load into a pile and arranged them into a campfire. William saluted. “Everything good, sir?” “Yes.” Charles returned his salute and then went back to securing the fort. Angeline had given William permission to build the fort over the main dining room’s twelve-seat walnut-burl table. William had created an elaborate stronghold for his brother. It was comprised of dozens of blankets that were draped over the leather chairs. He constructed it with numerous homemade traps to keep out marauding invaders, special listening posts, boxes of toy soldiers, and a secret supply of chocolate chip cookies. William walked over, leaned against the wall and peeked out at Angeline who was busy working in the kitchen. He had one giant, oversized schoolboy crush on her. Angeline had been their babysitter all summer. She was sweet, kind, and never acted like any of the other sitters the boys had known in the past. Most of them would spend all night talking on the telephone or nag at them to go to bed. Angeline wasn’t like that at all. She acted as if she wanted to be William and Charles’ friend. She played games with them and had fun too, even letting them pretend she was a maiden trapped in a castle so they could be the heroic knights who came to her rescue. As the sunlight poured through the window, William watched the beams shimmer off Angeline’s gold, flaxen hair. How many dreams he’d had about her deep, ocean blue eyes. He smiled. She turned and saw him. “Do you need anything William?” He stood up and swallowed. “No, ma’am. I’m fine.” “I need something,” Charles called out. “More blankets!” Angeline walked over and glanced at the table that had been transformed into a sea of fluffy comforters and homemade quilts. “More?” Charles puffed out his chest. “We need to secure the defenses.” He gave a curt nod followed by a crisp salute. She leaned down and squeezed his cheek. “You’re so cute with those big, green eyes of yours.” She kissed him on the forehead. “Coming right up, my little man.” Charles blushed. “Do you boys want me to make some special cheddar popcorn tonight?” Charles beamed. “Yes, please.” “But no eating the unpopped kernels at the bottom,” she lovingly admonished. Charles sighed and hung his head. She tilted her head and her golden blonde curls rolled off her shoulders. “You’ll break your little teeth.” William smiled as he watched Charles. With his hands in his pockets, Charles slumped around and kicked at the floor. “All right . . . I guess.” She lowered her brow and smiled at him. “I know you’re not really upset.” He pouted his lips. “What if I make you a triple chocolate milkshake to wash it down?” He perked right up. “Yes, please.” William chuckled. She wagged her finger. “If you weren’t so adorable . . . blankets, huh?” He nodded. “All right.” She turned and gracefully walked away. William watched in awe as she ascended the stairs like an angel. Because of Angeline’s presence at the house that summer, even his harsh father seemed a little nicer. The only problem was that summer would be ending in a few short weeks. Angeline would be heading back to college, and William would be returning to Pinehurst Military Academy. At boarding school, nobody ever wanted to be William’s friend. All they did there was bark orders. Do this or do that. He didn’t like it there, but any place was better than home. Up until that summer, the house had never been without turmoil. William and his father were always at odds. It felt like nothing William ever did could please the man. His father would intimidate and bully him; William always backed down—scared to make trouble. His mom, on the other hand, never learned to stay out of the line of fire. She seemed to become more defiant these last few months. She tried to hide the bruises, but it was clear who won the battles. “Sound the trumpets. Pzzz . . .” shouted Charles, playing underneath the protection of the fort. William tried to put the thought of what lay ahead out of his mind and concentrate on today. Right now, Charles’ fort needed work. Some of the chairs refused to cooperate and kept leaning, which caused the blankets to sag. “I’m going for supplies,” he called out to Charles. “Yes, sir.” William searched the back pantry for some heavy cans he could use as ballast. As he scratched his chin, debating whether beans would work better than soup, he heard the sound of the garage door opening. The creak of the chains as it raised the wood door always made William scurry for cover. His mother had told him his father wasn’t supposed to be home that weekend. Over the years, William had grown used to how little he saw his father. He always came home from the city very late. He never ate dinner with the family, but still his mom would make a plate of food for him and place it at the head of the table. Sometimes during dinner, William would catch her staring at the empty chair. He wondered sometimes whether she did it out of love, or fear. It made him sad to see his mom so miserable. Every night, she’d walk the uneaten plate of food back into the kitchen and dump it down the disposal. The metallic sound of the metal teeth grinding away still stuck in William’s memory. “Is that Dad?” Charles called out. His head snapped to attention. “Yes.” “Didn’t you have something to give him?” William looked to the counter where the model airplane he’d made for his father sat. His father, an avid collector, loved miniature replicas. Angeline had bought the model kit for William to work on that summer, and then give to his father as a present. William had spent hours gluing the intricate pieces together and hand painting the fine details, toiling on it every day. He was hesitant to give it to him, fearing how he would react. His father was either a hot, boiling volcano or a cold, marble statue. The man seemed to hate any signs of affection. However, Angeline encouraged William and told him his dad was nice underneath his hard exterior. She was sure he would love it. William was still unsure. In public, his father was a different person. A consummate actor, he could charm the hardest of businessman or the coldest of women. He had taken over his wife’s family business when William’s grandfather, Tobias Stanford, had passed away. The back door swung wide open. There he stood, tall and broad-shouldered. A chiseled specimen of a man. William admired the way his father could instantly command a room with his tone and posture. His sharply trimmed salt-and-pepper hair, square jaw, and imposing frame made it clear—he was the man in charge. William took the plane and went over to greet him. “Sir.” His father barely looked down. He passed by his son and headed for his study. Hastily, William followed. Realizing his son was still behind him, he gruffly asked, “Did you stay out of trouble today?” “Yes, sir.” They stepped into the wood-paneled study. His father shuffled through the mail in his hands as he stood behind the antique, teak desk that had been handed down to William’s mother as part of her inheritance. He didn’t look up at his son as he spoke. “Did you do all your chores?” William stood up straight and squared his shoulders. “Yes, sir. First thing this morning.” His father clenched his jaw as he anxiously shuffled through the mail again. William patiently waited. Looking over at the wooden shelves lined with his father’s collections, he admired the centerpiece. It was a rare pearl-handled Colt .45, once owned by some famous General. It rested on a velvet-lined mount under a special halogen spotlight. William looked down at the finely detailed model he’d made and imagined how well it would look up on the shelf. He hoped his father would like it. Encouraged, he spoke up. “Sir.” He cleared his throat. “I have something for you.” “Uh-huh.” William presented him with the F-100D Thunderbird. His father without expression looked down at it and said, “Real men don’t give each other presents.” William tried not to show how hurt he was. “But Angeline said you would love it.” “Oh, did she?” A rare smile broke across the man’s hard face. “Where is she?” “She went upstairs.” His father didn’t acknowledge the gift; instead, he just walked off. “Sir—” With a snap of his head and a razor-sharp look, he cut William off. William stepped back and lowered his eyes. His father continued toward the main staircase in the front hall. William stood, smoldering. Silently, he watched him walk away. His anger rising, he stared down at the airplane in his hand. He wanted to smash it against the wall. Charles’ head popped out of the fort. “Is he in a good mood?” William’s gaze lingered on the stairwell. “No. I don’t think so.” Charles admired the plane in William’s hand. “Did he like your present?” William glanced down at it, and then back at his brother’s expression. He looked into his brother’s wide green eyes and held out the plane. “He said he wanted you to have it.” Charles’ face lit up. He scooted on his knees and carefully, with palms up, reached out. William carefully placed it in his little hands. His younger brother held the model airplane as if it were the rarest treasure. William smiled. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” “Your welcome.” “This is way cool. Where is Angeline? I want to show it to her.” Charles pretended to fly the jet plane through the air. “I don’t know.” “Maybe she needs help with the blankets,” Charles added. “Maybe. I’ll go find her.” “Should I come?” Charles started to follow. Warily, William glanced up the stairs. “No. You stay here.” “Wait.” Charles put down the plane and then picked up one of his toy swords. He handed it to his older brother. “My scouts tell me there are bandits ahead—looking for lost gold.” He squinted like a one-eyed pirate. “Be careful mate.” William smiled. “Yes, sir.” Playing the part, William took the heavy, toy weapon and dispatched a number of invisible foes as he ascended the stairs. Satisfied, Charles nodded and returned to the fort. When William reached the top of the oak stairs, he called out, “Angeline,” but he received no response. He began to search the house, even the empty guest bedrooms, but she was nowhere to be found. It occurred to him to check the servants’ old back stairwell. Maybe she’d gone down that way when he had come up the main stairs and he’d simply missed her. As he went around the corner, he heard a strange noise coming from his parents’ bedroom wing. At first, William thought it was a TV set turned up too loud, but the noises didn’t sound like any TV program he watched. He stared for a second at the double doors that were slightly ajar and debated. Normally, he would never go near his parents’ bedroom, especially if his father was home; however, something bothered him about those noises. Cautiously, he approached the doors. Slowly, he peeked in. His eyes widened in shock at what he saw—Angeline lying on his mom’s bed, naked. William’s stomach plummeted to the ground. His father stepped into view. With a devilish grin, he dropped down on top of her. William stood there, frozen. Sick to his stomach, he watched the girl he treasured being kissed by the father he hated. Bile rose in his throat as his innocent vision of Angeline was shattered. “Don’t move.” His father grasped her by the wrists. Angeline squirmed and made a funny noise. At first, William thought it was a giggle, but then an odd look flashed across her face. Something seemed terribly wrong with this picture. Quickly, worry grew into fear. In that instant, something changed inside of William. All those long, hard years of letting his father intimidate him, shaking in dread whenever he came near, melted away. He looked at Angeline lying underneath his father and William’s courage rose. He opened the door, charged forward, and ran to defend her. “Angeline!” “William,” Angeline gasped. His father whirled with an expression of pure fury. “Get out!” His face was red with anger. “Stop,” William boldly said to his father. “William,” he commanded. “Get out of here—now.” William planted his feet shoulder-width apart and raised the sword to his father’s chest. “No,” he said calmly. “Leave her alone.” His father leapt from the bed. “Don’t you dare talk back to me, boy.” William flashed a quick glance at Angeline as she drew the sheets up to cover herself. “Don’t look at me, William.” She hid her face as she ran from the bedroom. Confused, William didn’t see his father charge at him. He stumbled backward as his father’s large fist swung hard. It struck William square in the face. William could hear the high-pitched snap of his jawbone as it broke. The blow was so intense, his vision blurred. A moment later a scream broke through the ringing in his ears, and then another punch came flying in. Like a ragdoll, William’s body flew back into the wall. Everything went pitch-black. CHAPTER TWELVE How Was Your Day? ~Present Day~ Jake stepped into the pitch-black room and flicked every light switch on the wall up and down. None of them worked. “Damn,” he grumbled to himself. He stumbled across the room, as he tried to remember the layout of the mobile home’s living room. Finding the one lamp that had a light bulb in it, he flicked it on only to hear the sound of electricity crackling from somewhere else in the house. His dad’s cousin, who was letting them stay there until they got back on their feet, had told them the mobile home had “phantom electrical issues.” He could easily believe that. All the outlets had coppery-green film oozing from the sockets. Earlier that morning when Jake went to make himself a cup of coffee, he hesitated to plug the coffeemaker in, but his need for caffeine overrode his fears of being zapped by a hundred and twenty volts of electricity. Jake’s day went downhill from there, fast. He shook his head at how he impulsively started a fight at school with the hopes of being expelled. Instead, he found himself going head-to-head with half the football team. He lifted his shirt and examined his abs, now covered in black and blue welts. “Yippee,” he mocked himself. He took off his leather jacket and headed into the living room. When he flopped down onto the sofa, a musty smell puffed out of the cushions. He stared across the living room at the hunting rifle and ammunition carelessly left out. His irritation churned. After all these years of hiding, that gun and ammo had come close to being his family’s downfall. Left behind by the evicted crack addicts, his dad decided to keep the gun, mostly out of concern that their friends—or enemies—might return to the mobile home. Jake knew he needed to get it out of sight. He looked up to where they had found it in the ceiling panel, overhead. After the day he’d had, he wanted to crash early but thought he’d better clean the rest of the house. He believed Simplicity’s promise not to say anything, but somebody else might get curious about the new kid from school and come to investigate. His fears seemed to be realized when he heard footsteps on the front stairs. He bolted toward the gun as the door whipped open. In walked his twelve-year-old brother, Connor. Looking thunderstruck, he held a load of schoolbooks hooked in his right hand. “Well, that sucked,” he announced as the door banged shut behind him. Jake exhaled in relief, and then sat back down. “Yeah. You’re not kidding.” “Why do we have to go to public school, anyway?” Connor tossed his books onto the table. “Why can’t I be homeschooled again?” Jake looked at the pillow and blanket on the end of the couch where his dad had been sleeping. “You know why we can’t. Dad’s boss was asking too many questions.” “You’re a way better teacher than any of them.” Jake nodded. “Thanks.” Connor pointed his thumb over his shoulder. “Do you know what they had me do?” “No.” Jake interlaced his hands behind his head, leaned back, and stared up at the ceiling. “Enlighten me.” Exasperated, Connor’s voice rose high. “They made me take a bunch of tests to prove that I was ready for the eighth grade.” Jake laughed. “What kind?” “Some national standardized dumbass exam.” Jake shook his head. Connor gestured to himself. “I mean, do I look stupid to you?” Jake smiled. “I’d rather not answer that.” “Idiots.” Connor shook his head and plopped down onto the old, worn-out recliner. Jake stared up at the ceiling and raised his eyebrows. “Why do you think they made you take a test?” “I don’t know. It might’ve been because I told them that I’d no records being homeschooled.” He shrugged. “After that, they treated me like I was a baby or something.” Jake watched Connor lower his head and break eye contact. He knew his little brother all-to-well, he tilted his head to the side and pried, “Is that all?” Sheepishly, Connor scanned the floor. “Maybe I messed up and gave ’em the wrong birth date.” Jake rolled his eyes. Connor bounced his knee. “You’re not mad at me, are you?” He looked up at his older brother. “No.” Jake shook his head. “We all make stupid mistakes sometimes. Lord knows I have my share of them. What’s done is done.” Connor slowly nodded. “Well?” Jake asked. “Well, what?” Jake smiled. “Did you pass the test?” “Yeah. Of course.” Connor flicked a piece of fuzz at him. “They said the exam takes three hours. I finished it in one.” Jake raised an eyebrow. “Don’t worry. After I got three-quarters of the way through and saw what a breeze it was, I blew the rest of the answers to make it look good.” “Nice.” “Yeah, right.” Connor spoke with a tinge of sarcasm. “Then I had to sit there like a mop for two hours, doodling.” Jake slumped. He hated seeing his brother upset. “Since we’re stuck going to school, that was good you did that, blow the test.” Connor rolled his head. “It’s probably better we fly under the radar for a while. Try to stay out of trouble.” “Yeah . . .” “Speaking of staying under the radar.” Jake glanced at the gun. “Wasn’t somebody supposed to stow that away after he cleaned it last night?” “I was checking it out. That’s all.” Connor shrugged. “I forgot.” “Don’t forget the next time.” “Why?” He glanced sideways and stood up to go put it away. “What’s the big deal?” Jake shook his head. “Nothing.” Connor picked up the gun, checked that the safety was still on, packed up the ammo, popped up the ceiling paneling, and then slid them out of sight. Jake closed his eyes and tried to relax. Connor looked his older brother over as he sat back down. “So, how was your day?” Jake grimaced. “Don’t ask.” “That bad, huh?” Jake lifted up his shirt to show him the bruises. “What the—?” Connor jumped up. He balled his hands into fists. “Who did that to you?” Jake held up a hand. “Calm down. He’s a good guy.” “A good guy?” Connor stared at his brother. “If you think he’s a good guy, I’d hate to meet a guy you think is bad.” Jake smiled. “It’s not what you think.” Connor shook his head and sat back down. Mimicking his older brother, he placed his hands behind his head, leaned back, and looked up at the ceiling. “Enlighten me.” “I tried to get expelled.” Connor sat up. “Did it work?” “No.” Connor deflated. “That sucks.” “No kidding.” “What went wrong with your plan?” “I got distracted.” “By what?” Jake hesitated to say it, knowing what it meant. “A girl.” Connor gave him a one-eyed glare. “She got a name?” “Yeah.” There was a long silent pause. “Well?” Connor’s bright, green eyes opened wide. “Are you gonna tell me what it is?” Jake shook his head. “It doesn’t matter now. It’s not going anywhere.” “She got a boyfriend or something?” Jake’s fist slowly came down on his dad’s pillow. “Something like that.” The boys sat in the living room for a while listening to the old clock on the electric stove tick away the minutes. Connor looked around the empty living room. “Man, I miss my Xbox.” Jake moaned. He knew it had been one of the many things left behind in the frantic, mad dash to escape. Where they had lived before, in an isolated home deep in the woods, had allowed them a few years respite—until everything came crashing down, forcing them to flee. With no money and no possessions, they had to reach out to his dad’s cousin again. Since the mobile home was vacant, he had offered it, along with vouching for his cousin to help him get a job. Connor stared at his schoolbooks. “So I take it we’re gonna be stuck here for a while.” “Looks like it.” “So I need to buck up and blend in?” Jake looked at his brother’s face. He didn’t like the ache he saw buried in his eyes. “Connor, do you regret agreeing to do this?” Connor exhaled. “No man.” He scratched behind his ear. “Don’t get me wrong, it sucks at times, but no, I don’t regret it. I know it’s for the best.” Jake stared up at the ceiling. He wished he could feel the same way. It’d been a long, hard five years. He felt like every choice he ever made was always wrong, leading him straight into a disaster. Earlier that morning when he had reached out and offered Gabe and Simplicity help, part of him knew it was risky, yet Jake yearned to have friends and a semi-normal life. He cursed himself as he thought about how he had handled the situation. He knew if Simplicity had called her dad the careful cover they had spent years building up would be blown in an instant. He didn’t know what was going to happen with her; she didn’t seem like the type to just let things drop. He groaned. Avoiding her probably was for the best, but part of him didn’t want to do that. Jake dropped his hands onto the couch. “I guess I’d better start dinner. You know how grumpy Dad is when he’s hungry.” “Yeah. Paul can be a bear.” Connor rolled his eyes. “You want some help?” “It’s mac and cheese.” Jake stood up. “Not much to boiling water.” Connor looked up at his older brother. “You know, dude, I don’t think I ever said thank you.” Jake scoffed, “Thanks for what?” He gestured around the room. “All this?” “No.” Connor’s expression was solemn. “I know how much you want this to end. The only reason I think you keep going now is for my sake.” Jake feigned a smile. “Don’t think so much of yourself.” He butted the end of his boot against his brother’s. “There are other reasons too.” Skeptically, Connor gave him the once over. “Uh-huh.” Jake cocked his head. “Fine. Have it your way.” “I will.” Connor grunted. Jake headed into the kitchen. “Are you gonna tell him what happened today?” Conner asked. Jake’s head rose. “Wasn’t planning on it.” Cautiously Connor eyed his brother. “What if he finds out?” Jake stared at the empty refrigerator shelf. He knew exactly how his dad would react. “I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Connor dropped his shoulders and gawked at the pile of schoolbooks. “So we’re stuck here for a while?” Jake pulled out a pot. “Yup.” “And I gotta go to public school?” “Yup.” Jake walked over to the sink and began filling it with water. “At least we survived our first day of school.” “Yeah, terrific.” Connor gave out a long exhale. He reached out and grabbed a schoolbook. “Well. Here’s to fitting in.” He flipped open his textbook. Jake stared into the woods as steam from the sink fogged the window. “Yeah, to fitting in…and to keeping secrets.” A moment later, a speeding car churned its way up the gravel driveway. The boys quickly looked toward the front door; they knew from the distinct engine sound who it was. “Paul’s driving fast.” Connor swallowed. “You know what that means.” “Yup.” A car door slammed shut. The boys warily looked at one another. Connor put down his schoolbook. “Do you think he already found out?” “…Maybe.” Jake’s muscles tightened as he prepared for the worse. Bang. The front door crashed opened when the tornado flew in the door.

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