Keep the secret of where he's going in the evenings from his own twinor he'll lose his family.
Keep his mind off the hot, self-assured dancer who's supposed to be his "girlfriend's" partner.
Of course there's also the homicidal freak Quinn has taken to hanging around, and the Elemental Guide counting the hours until he can try again to kill the Merrick brothers.
There's a storm coming. From all sides. And then some.
Nick Merrick, can you keep it together?
Praise for Brigid Kemmerer and The Elemental Series
"Magic, suspense, and enough twists to keep you reading until sunrise.!" Award winning author Erica O'Rourke
"A refreshingly human paranormal romance. . . Read fast and keep that heart rate up." Kirkus Reviews on Storm
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The Elemental Series
By BRIGID KEMMERER
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Brigid Kemmerer
All rights reserved.
Nick Merrick set a wide piece of flagstone into the sand, shifting it back and forth to lock it in place. Despite the late October chill in the air, the sun beat down on his back, making him regret his long-sleeved black T-shirt. He pulled the red Merrick Landscaping cap off his head to wipe sweat away with his forearm. His hair was already damp, and he still had half a path to finish.
He yanked the hat back on and fed some power into the air, asking for a breeze.
The wind was overly happy to accommodate, sending a gust through the trees to scatter leaves and blow sand into the grass. Nick swore.
Quinn shivered and huddled down in her fleece pullover. "Frigging wind."
Nick glanced at her. She was sitting on the slate stone bench his older brother had installed yesterday. "Cold? Go sit in the truck."
"But I'm helping you."
Nick smiled. She hadn't left the bench since they'd gotten here. "Oh. Okay. I didn't realize you were helping."
"Not with the landscaping. I can barely pick those rocks up." She turned to lie flat on the bench, letting long blond hair fall almost to the grass. She stretched one leg up to the sky. Next she'd be pulling it back toward her chest and putting her ankle next to her ear. Crazy dancer. "I'm helping you keep up illusions."
Illusions. Nick lost the smile and flung another stone into place. "Are you sure you're not avoiding going home?"
"Okay, so maybe we're helping each other."
He made a noncommittal noise and reached for another stone.
"Seriously," said Quinn. "Your brother gave you crap for bringing me along, didn't he?"
"Not really." And Michael hadn't. If Gabriel or Chris had tried to drag a girl along on a job, Michael would have pitched a fit. But Nick was the dependable one. When he'd mentioned that Quinn was riding along, his older brother hadn't batted an eye.
Then again, Nick had told Michael a little about Quinn's epic fights with her mom, which seemed to have gotten worse since her family's home was destroyed in a fire. Maybe Michael was cutting her some slack, too.
"Huh," said Quinn. "Maybe I should accidentally leave panties in your room or something."
"You don't need to do that."
"You sound pissed."
Nick put another rock into place and rolled the tension from his shoulders. "I'm not. I'm just ... you don't need to go over the top."
"Panties are over the top?"
He didn't even bother answering that.
"Come on," she said. "If you don't want your brothers to know you're into guys, a little lingerie left in your bedroom might be just the ticket."
Nick slammed another rock into the sand and didn't bother answering that, either.
Quinn was relentless. "Have you seen Adam since that night I caught you kissing?"
"No." At least not in reality. But Quinn's dance partner had occupied nearly every waking moment of Nick's thoughts. And a lot of the sleeping moments, too.
Adam was the first—the only—boy he'd ever kissed.
Nick's brothers had no idea. They still thought he was infatuated with Quinn. And Quinn was all too happy to keep up the "illusion," as she put it.
"Have you talked to him?" Quinn pressed.
"No." But he read over Adam's last text message about twenty times a day.
When you know what you want, I'll be right here.
Nick knew what he wanted, all right. He just wasn't sure he wanted to want it. His life was already complicated enough. He reached for another stone.
"He asked about you," said Quinn.
Nick dropped the stone on his fingers. He swore again and flexed them to ease the pain. "Yeah?"
"He asked how you were doing."
Nick didn't say anything, just rocked the stone into place.
"Hmm," said Quinn. "What did I tell him about you ...?"
Nick's heart tripped and stumbled along. He waited.
Finally, he looked up. "There's a pool around back. Don't think I won't drop you in it."
Quinn smiled, but it was a little cautious, a little sad. "He asked if you'd be coming with me to the studio anytime soon."
She meant the dance studio at the Y, where he'd first met Adam. Nick enjoyed watching Quinn dance, and he loved the way music coursed through the air to seep into his skin. Then he'd seen Adam, and it was like a missing puzzle piece finally snapped into place.
He'd loved watching Adam dance, too.
Nick grabbed a hand roller and flattened the next expanse of sand. "I don't want to be a distraction."
"I think you need a little distraction."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you're completely stressed out." Quinn rolled off the bench and walked behind him, putting her hands on his shoulders. She dug her thumbs into the muscles there. It almost hurt, but it felt good, too, so he didn't stop her.
"Quinn, it's fine. I have a lot on my mind."
Like the fact that he and his brothers were still marked for death for the Elemental abilities they struggled to control.
Or the fact that a bunch of younger Elementals had nearly destroyed the town a week ago.
Or maybe that the Guide who'd come to town to kill them all was sitting in a jail cell, and could be released at any time.
Not to mention the stack of college responses hidden in his desk at home. Or his family's struggling landscaping business, which was barely turning a profit now, to say nothing of getting through the winter.
Oh, and the fact that he was gay, and one of the only two people who knew was sitting right here ragging on him about it.
"Why don't you come to the studio tonight?" she said.
"I have a physics test tomorrow. I need to study."
"Please. Like you couldn't pass that in your sleep. And if you really needed to study, why aren't your brothers doing this job?"
Nick shook her hands off and reached for another stone. "Hannah was off tonight, and Mike needed a break. I offered."
"Of course you did." She paused. "And Gabriel? Chris?"
"Busy, and busy." His youngest brother, Chris, had plans with his girlfriend. And Gabriel, his twin, was trying to catch up on math so he could apply for firefighter school in the spring.
"Come on," said Quinn. "You know you want to."
He did want to. A lot.
A lot more than he wanted to admit.
Too complicated. He shook his head.
"Come on," said Quinn. "You could bring your textbook. Wear some glasses. He'd probably think it was sexy."
Nick told himself to stop imagining it.
Quinn grinned. "Nicholas Merrick. You are blushing."
"Seriously. Pool. Out back. Get ready to be all wet."
"If you don't come with me, I'm going to tell him to stop pining, because you're not interested."
"You are not going to tell him that."
"Yes. I am. In fact—" She pulled out her cell phone. "I'm going to tell him right now."
Her hands were flying across the keys. Nick was on his feet yanking it out of her hands before he even knew he was moving.
She didn't fight him.
Then he looked down at what she'd typed. Not a message to Adam. A message to him.
You deserve a break, too, Nick.
He sighed. "I don't know."
Her voice gentled. "I know you still like him." She paused. "It's not a date. It's an hour in the studio."
An hour watching Adam dance. He'd almost come undone the first time. But eager butterflies were hanging streamers for a party in his stomach. "All right. I'll come with you."
"Yay!" She clapped.
"You seem overly enthusiastic. Like you said, it's an hour in the studio. Nothing might happen."
"Oh, it's not that." She smiled sweetly. "Really, I needed a ride."
Nick grabbed her and flung her over his shoulder. "That's it. Pool."
She laughed. "You're excited. Come on. Admit it."
He set her on her feet, but didn't let her go. Up close, he could look into the blue of her eyes. She was very pretty, with enough curves to draw attention. She whined about being fat all the time, but dance kept her body toned and muscled.
After catching him with Adam, she'd offered to continue playing the role of his girlfriend. It let him keep his secret from his brothers, but it also kept her from going out and meeting a guy who would care about what she had to offer.
This whole setup was so wrong. "I hate using you," he said.
"Do you want to have an epic breakup?"
"You deserve to date a guy who likes you."
"So do you."
Nick clamped his mouth shut and turned back to the path, slapping the next stone into place.
"We can stop if you want," said Quinn. "I'll go back to nightly screaming matches with my mother, you go back to screwing easy girls so you look like a total player."
"Quinn. I was not—"
"Maybe you weren't sleeping with them, but you were using them just the same." At his fierce look, she gave him one right back. "They might not have known the truth about you, but it doesn't make it any different."
"I wasn't using them."
"Yes. You were."
Yes. He was. Nick looked at the rock in his hands, then shoved it into line with the others.
"It's not going to go away, Nick!" cried Quinn. "If you don't want to pretend with me, that's fine. But it's not fair to pretend with anyone else, either."
She was right. It wasn't fair. None of it was fair.
"What are you thinking?" said Quinn. "That you'll break up with me and find some new skank who'll keep your cover more effectively?"
"Fine. Go ahead. I'll go find my own ride." She stood and stormed toward the road.
Nick caught her before she could get too far. Quinn had a history of making poor decisions. Ending up unconscious on the beach with a few drunken bikers was only the most recent. She was lucky he'd found her before anything else could happen.
"Stop," he said. "Stop."
He expected to find her expression distraught, but instead she looked challenging. "Why are you stopping me?"
"Because you're my friend."
"You're mine, too." She reached up to give the brim of his hat a yank. "Have you ever thought about just ... telling your brothers?"
He sighed and looked away. He thought about it all the time. Then he'd remember the thousand-and-one locker room gay jokes he'd heard from his twin. He'd remember Gabriel's swift and brutal judgment of anything new. Gabriel knew how to cut right to the quick, and this felt so fragile and untested that Nick was afraid to bare skin in the face of that blade.
Then there was Michael, overworked and overwrought, who'd said last week that he couldn't handle one more complication in their lives. Nick did the bookkeeping for their landscaping business—they could practically reach out and touch their bottom line.
That left Chris, brooding and distant, who might be okay with it—or he might not.
They couldn't afford discord right now.
"Things at home—they're complicated ..." he started. Then he caught her eyes. His things at home had nothing on hers. "I don't want to rock the boat," he finally said.
"What about Hunter?" she said. "Are you guys still sharing a room?"
"Yeah, until we figure out a new sleeping arrangement. And seriously, you think I should start with my roommate, who, gee, happens to be my twin brother's best friend? You're right, Quinn. That's a great idea." He left her and went back to the path. At least slinging flagstone gave him a way to work off frustration.
Quinn came back to the bench and resumed stretching. "Is that weird for you? Sharing a room with a guy?"
"I shared a room with Gabriel for the first twelve years of my life."
"That's not what I mean, and you know it."
Nick rolled more sand flat. "No," he said, his tone resigned. "It's not weird. At least not for me."
"You think it would be for him?"
Nick had no idea. He didn't say anything.
"Tell me," said Quinn. "Does he have tattoos and piercings all over his body, or what? Though I can't decide whether that would be hot or disgusting—"
Nick threw a handful of sand at her.
But really, he had no answer. He was so well practiced in the art of Do Not Look at Other Guys that he kept his head in a book anytime Hunter was even in the room.
And Hunter totally wasn't his type anyway.
"I'll stop pushing," said Quinn.
"But you're definitely coming tonight."
"Oh, you can't back out now. I already texted Adam that you'll be there."
His head swung around. "You what?"
"He's looking forward to it. See?" She held up her phone.
A smiley face.
A smiley face? Nick had no idea what that meant. Was that casual happy? Excited happy? An obligatory response that didn't mean anything? It wasn't even a D smiley. It was one of the parenthesis ones.
God, he was trying to puzzle out the hidden meaning of the punctuation in a frigging emoticon.
"You look nervous," said Quinn.
She got down on her knees next to him in the grass. "Don't be nervous," she said quietly. "He really likes you, Nick."
Nick knew that.
And that was the problem. He really liked him back.
Quinn thought Nick Merrick was the best boyfriend in the world.
He'd been pretty sweet before she found out he was gay, but now ... now she knew he liked her for her, when all the other guys she'd ever dated took every opportunity to get into her pants.
It seemed fitting that the best relationship in her life would be just as dysfunctional as all her other ones. Her alcoholic mother. Her more-absent-than-not father. Her stoner older brother and her video game–obsessed younger brother. The cheerleaders who hated her, the dance team that didn't want her—if a gay boyfriend was the best she could do, she'd take it.
He worried he was using her—well, she worried she was using him. Hanging out with Nick gave her an opportunity to avoid her own family. And Becca, too, if you got right down to it.
Quinn didn't resent losing her best friend to Chris Merrick.
"You're quiet," said Nick.
Quinn glanced over. He was driving the landscaping truck with one hand on the wheel, the other arm across the seat backs.
For one second, she regretted the whole gay thing and wished she could curl up against him, let his arm wrap around her shoulder and make her feel wanted.
Then she told that moment of longing to shove it.
"I was thinking about Becca," she said.
"She and Chris seem to be getting pretty serious." He seemed amused.
She snorted. "Like a heart attack."
He was silent for a moment. "You guys aren't hanging out much lately?"
Nick could always see right through her. Quinn shrugged.
"It's fine. I'm glad she's happy."
"And you sound so sincere about it."
Quinn hit him on the arm. "No. I am. I just ... miss her, you know? And I'm ..."
Jealous. She was jealous.
But she couldn't say that.
"It's fine," she said. "I shouldn't have brought up Becca.
She's just spending all this time with Chris, and I get it, but she doesn't talk to me anymore. I don't think she's hiding something, but it's almost like she's got this new life that I'm not a part of. If that makes any sense."
Nick sighed. "Yeah, Quinn, it actually makes a lot of sense." He hit the turn signal for their street. "Did you tell Becca about me?"
"Of course not! God, what kind of friend do you think I am?"
He held up a hand. "I'm just saying—maybe you both have secrets."
He dropped his arm to give her half a hug—totally platonic, and nothing she really wanted. But she took the comfort all the same.
"You're a good friend," he said. "That's the kind I think you are."
Quinn straightened and studied him. Nick really was a looker—all dark hair and blue eyes and broad shoulders. Muscled arms from all the landscaping. Just enough freckles sprinkled across those high cheekbones to make him look boyish and charming.
Then again, his twin brother had those same freckles, and there was nothing boyish and charming about him.
"Actually," Nick said slowly, "it's probably time I should tell you another secret—" He broke off, his voice hardening to steel. "Damn it."
Quinn followed his gaze. They were turning up his driveway, and a blond guy was making his way down the walk from their house. The guy looked pissed.
"Who's that?" she said.
"Tyler Morgan. He's an asshole." Nick threw the truck into park and hesitated there, glaring at the guy as he walked toward them.
Tyler's expression was full of fury. He said something, but Quinn couldn't hear him over the diesel engine with the windows closed.
Then Nick killed the engine just as Tyler turned his gaze on Quinn.
Excerpted from Secret by BRIGID KEMMERER. Copyright © 2014 Brigid Kemmerer. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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