Page 23

Jared opened my door and helped me in. “Oh, now it’s him?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m playing around with both.”

Jared shut the door and in the next moment, slid into his seat. He shoved the shift into gear and then pul ed away, a residual smile on his face.

I leaned over and hugged his arm, leaning my head on his shoulder. For the first time in a long time, tomorrow didn’t seem so ominous. Eli gave us all a bit of hope.

My cel phone rang, and I fished it from my purse, reading the display. “Hi, Beth,” I said.

“How long have you been in town?”

“A few hours. I know I said I would come over. We had to see Lil ian and Cynthia, first.”

“Okay, I get that, but you could have at least cal ed!”

I frowned. I was failing right and left at friendship. “Okay. Let me make it up to you. I’ll meet you at the pub in twenty minutes.”

“The pub? Real y?”

“Yes. I’m sure you need a drink. I’ll cal Ryan and Claire. They can meet us there.”

“Just like old times!” Beth squealed. “I’ll tel Chad!”

I dropped the phone into my purse and smiled. “She hung up on me.”

Jared frowned. “Do you think it’s wise to meet in a public place after the day we just had?”

I looked out the window. “This is my town. I dare them.”

Jared chuckled, and then took my hand, kissing my fingers. “You’re very attractive when you’re feisty.”

I grinned over his compliment, and watched Providence pass by as we made our way to the pub. Once in a while I would sneak glances at him.

Jared hadn’t changed much since we met. He was stil the tal , blond, movie-star-handsome man that sat next to me on the bench almost three years before. His chest and arm muscles stil caught my eye when they moved and flexed under his shirt; his blue-gray eyes stil made me pause.

Life couldn’t have spiraled out of control anymore than it had, but I wouldn’t trade it. A different life didn’t even appeal to me at that point. Despite that we were about to run for our lives, I had everything I’d ever wanted, with a man I loved desperately. Was the danger, stress, and fear worth it? Damn right it was.

The neighborhood around the pub had deteriorated since my freshman year. The streets seemed darker, and instead of col ege students congregating outside the front door, those loitering were much older, wearing sad stories on their faces. Jared pul ed into the parking lot across the street. Nearly hopscotching my way around the puddles in the road, I ignored the stares of those standing outside, and led Jared into the pub. Tozzi was no longer behind the bar. In his place was a large woman with long, yel ow hair. She didn’t greet us when we came in.

“New management, I’m guessing,” Jared said as we found a table. “I guess Beth hasn’t been here lately, either, or she would have said something.”

“It’s a shame. Some of my favorite Brown memories are of this place.”

Jared put his elbows on the table and settled in, smiling. “You mean the first night we danced?”

I rested my cheek on the palm of my hand, shooting a flirtatious smile across the table. “That’s exactly what I was referring to, yes.”

The music was loud, so I resorted to texting Beth to see if she wanted to meet elsewhere. I felt safe anywhere if I was with Jared. Although Chad was no pipsqueak, I couldn’t imagine she would be comfortable here.

Seconds after I sent the text, Beth and Chad pushed through the door. Beth’s eyes were wide as she looked around, and only slightly relieved when she recognized Jared and me. She waved at us, and then pul ed Chad hastily across the room to our little corner.

“What in the hel happened to this place?” she said.

I leaned into the table. “Do you want to leave?”

“Why?” Chad said, puffing up his chest. “I’m ready for a beer.”

We ordered, then Claire appeared, with Ryan right behind her.

One of the men whistled, and then slapped Claire’s backside. She jerked to a stop, and with her stiletto boots, kicked the leg of the chair the man was in. It splintered, sending him tumbling to the ground. Neither Claire nor Ryan glanced behind them. They simply continued to our table as if nothing had happened.

One of the misfits at the man’s table stood, and then Jared pushed himself away from the table, rising until his six feet, two inches towered over his chal enger. Even from across the room he was intimidating. When the friend promptly took his seat, Jared did the same.

“You always have to make an entrance,” Jared grumbled to his sister.

“I’ll never get his greasy fingerprints out of this fabric.”

“That’s what you get for wearing pleather,” Ryan joked.

“This is not pleather,” Claire seethed. She jerked her head, shaking her bangs from her eyes. Her ice blue irises glowed against her nearly white hair, and I silently hoped that Bean looked just like her. A little nicer, of course, but physical y, Claire was the perfect female specimen.

Beth fil ed us in on the magnitude of emotions at Titan, the rumors, and how wel Grant was handling it all . The longer Beth talked, the hotter the pub became, as more grungy bikers and seedy individuals flowed through the door. Hearing Beth over the noise became more difficult for Chad, but Jared and I only pretended to struggle. To me, Beth sounded like she was talking directly into my ear.

A fight broke out, and Jared stood. He was on high alert, waiting for the crowd around us to shel . I watched the scuffle until they were thrown outside, and then I breathed. Jared was right. I was too confident. Even with the added security of Claire and Ryan, Chad and Beth could easily be hurt if the rowdy crowd inside shel ed and we had to fight our way out.

“Maybe we should find somewhere else,” I said.

“I agree,” Beth jumped in.

“I’ll get the tab,” Jared said.

Claire rol ed her eyes. “You guys are babies.”

Beth and I left Claire and Ryan sitting at the table, walking together toward the door. Just a few feet away, we waited for Chad and Jared to pay the bil . Chad was laughing at something Jared had said. I smiled. There was something so satisfying about Jared socializing with someone other than our inner circle. It made him more...human.

Spending time with people who didn’t know our secrets was relaxing for me, and it seemed to be that way for Jared, too. In that moment, I accepted my choice to keep the truth from Beth. Not only was it for her own safety, but I could rationalize that it was for my own sanity as wel .

“You’ve real y popped!” Beth said, gesturing to my stomach.

Instinctively I put my hand on my rounded bel y. “Crazy, isn’t it? It seems like it happened overnight.”

Just then another fight broke out. People were punching and shoving, their bodies bouncing against each other like pinbal s. I desperately tried to find Jared in the chaos, but when a line of sight final y opened up, he was no longer beside the bar.

Knowing the safest place for us was outside, I hurriedly opened the door and pushed Beth into the night air. The fighting spil ed out onto the sidewalk, forcing Beth and me farther away. I tried to keep her out of harm’s way, tugging on her until we found ourselves in the all ey.

“Oddly enough, I feel safer in the dark,” Beth whispered.

Yel ing and breaking glass sounded just around the corner, and I decided to stay put. We waited for Jared and Chad, but the minutes passed, and I fought away feeling of panic. I imagined they were fighting their way out of the pub in that moment, and at any second they would come around the corner.

The smal space between the two buildings didn’t all ow for much light. I felt a chil down my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. From each end of the all eyway, whispers floated from the shadows.

I squeezed Beth’s hand. “We should see what’s taking so long.”

Beth nodded. We took a step, and then froze. A large man that I recognized from the pub stood in the way, his eyes bulging black spheres. His mouth moved, but he spoke in a different language. Something I’d never heard before.

Beth let out a smal gasp, and she took a step back, pulling me with her. A dark, metal side door opened, and the bartender stepped out. Her expressionless face and dark eyes signaled that she had shel ed as wel .

“Oooooooh sh—” Beth began, but I pushed her against the brick wal , right beside a dumpster.

“It’s okay. Jared and Chad wil be here any minute,” I said. I turned, holding up my hands in a defensive pose.

The two shel s approached me, the woman with a frightening smile, and knife in her hands.

“Chad!” Beth yel ed. “We’re in the all ey!”

“Help!” I cal ed. I could stil hear yel ing from the sidewalk fight. It would be difficult for anyone to hear; not that any of them would come to our aid. I deduced that Jared was dealing with Shel s of his own, or he would already have reached us. The Shel s came closer, and I braced myself.

“Crap,” I said.

The woman lunged at me, and I dodged. I kicked, buckling her knee. Her head hit the brick cement wal just a few feet from Beth’s feet. Beth covered her mouth and let out a yelp. The bartender regained her feet, blood dripping from her hairline, and took a step toward Beth. I picked up a branch beside the dumpster and swung with both hands. The woman fel to the ground. The knife clanged against the asphalt.

Beth leaned over, picked up the knife, and held it in front of her, shaking. “Don’t go near her!” she said. “She’s pregnant!”

The man smiled, and spoke something inaudible once again. He ran at me, and I jumped over him, letting him careen at ful speed into the brick wal . He stumbled back, and I attacked. My hands bal ed into fists, and I punched his face over and over, and then grabbed his leather jacket with both hands and threw him to the ground. He grabbed my ankle and yanked, knocking me off my feet, but within seconds, I was standing, my hands out and ready.

My senses were heightened again, signaling that more additional danger was coming, but it was too late. Someone burst out of the shadows and hooked an arm around my neck.

“Leave her alone!” Beth said, running at us with the knife.

I held out my hand, palm out. “Stay against the wal , Beth!”

She stopped mid-step, confused, and then I jerked my head back, hitting my assailant in the nose with my skul . I turned to see another man, this one skinnier and lanky, on the ground. Blood was spattered on his cheeks and forehead.

The larger man came at me with the branch. I used my forearm to hit it out of his hand, and then shoved the heel of my hand into his throat. In Claire-like fashion, I spun around, kicking him in the head. He fel to his knees. I reared back my hand and punched him with my fist in the jaw, knocking him out cold.

The skinny man kicked my back, and I fel to the ground, but caught myself before I fel flat.

“No! Nina!” Beth screamed.

I turned around, and threw every one of my limbs at him, kicking and punching. We were half way down the all ey before he final y swung and punched me in the face. Half-surprised that he had landed a punch, half-amazed that it didn’t hurt, I paused. Taking advantage, the skinny man lunged at my middle. My motherly instincts kicked in, and rage wel ed up inside of me. I moved to the side, and his fist landed against the brick.

Seeing that he’d left his side open attack, I reacted, shoving my elbow into his throat, and then with one hand, I picked him up, and with all of my strength, I cried out, simultaneously throwing him against the opposite wal .

He rol ed to the ground, and didn’t get up again.

Beth ran to my side and threw her arms around me. I could hear her heart thumping against her chest, and she could barely catch her breath.

Jared and Chad rounded the corner, both disheveled. Jared’s terrified expression melted into relief, and his shoulders fel .

Chad’s eyes were wide, his breath labored. “Beth!” he cried, jumping over the bodies in his way.

Beth released me and ran into Chad’s arms, immediately breaking into loud sobs. It was then that Chad noticed the limp bodies on the ground, and his eyes met mine. “What the hel happened?”

Beth held up her hand, palm out. “Don’t say it,” she said, sniffing. She wiped her nose and took a step toward me. “I love you, but please don’t tel me how you did all of that. I honestly don’t want to know.”

“Wel , I do,” Chad said.

“It’s better that you don’t,” Jared said, shouldering past Chad. He reached for me, and I fel into him. “Every last one of them shel ed. It took forever to get out the door.”

“It’s a shame, but we’re not going to that pub again,” Chad said, shaking his head. “It’s been taken over by misfits and criminals.”

“Where’s Claire and Ryan?” I asked.

Chad rol ed his eyes. “Cleaning up. I think they’re enjoying themselves.”

We walked around the corner to find Claire standing alone, her arms crossed. Ryan grabbed a man twice his size and head-butted him.

“The PD wil be here any minute,” Jared said.

“I know,” Claire said. “But I find him strangely attractive right now.”

Jared rol ed his eyes and led me to the street, and Beth and Chad fol owed. When we reached the parking lot, Chad took a deep breath. His hands were trembling, as were Beth’s. I felt so sorry for them. They didn’t deserve to be dragged into our mess.

“Beth,” I said. I licked the blood from my bottom lip. “We’re going away.”

Her eyes shot up. “Again? But, you just got back.”

“I need you to cover for me at Titan. Work under Grant. We’ll be gone for the summer.”

Beth left Chad and wrapped her arms around my neck, squeezing me tight. “I just need to know one thing: Are you going to be okay?”