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Whispers From the Dead by B.L. Brunnemer (1)

Chapter 1

April, Friday



“Can you stop looking out the window and focus?” Dr. Smith asked. I let the sheer curtain drop and turned around on the plush couch in her office. Dr. Smith was a nice woman with kind gray eyes and endless amounts of patience. At least it seemed that way to me. She’d been my shrink since January. After the abduction and assault, everyone thought I should have someone who could help me through it. Miles had found Dr. Smith, an expert in dealing with the after effects of trauma. Trauma, I had suffered trauma. I huffed to myself and focused as she asked, “How are the nightmares?”

“They are happening less, around four times a week now.” My voice turned raspy. I took a sip out of my now ever-present water bottle so it would go away.

“And did you shower after them?” she asked gently. I sighed. My nightmare was always the same. Clay Ordin was forcing me to walk through the snow back to the cabin. Then he would call me ‘his’ and grope my chest, then between my legs. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like I needed a shower after every dream.

“I showered after only two of them this week.” The raspy note from my voice was gone.

Dr. Smith’s eyes ran over my face.

“How did you stop yourself from showering the other two times?” she asked.

I reached down and ran my fingers through Hades’ fur. The dog had gone through a big growth spurt over the last few months, he was getting rather intimidating. I took him everywhere with me now. “I reminded myself that it happened in January, this is April. I pet Hades while doing those counting exercises,” I said. Dr. Smith smiled gently.

“That’s good to hear, Lexie.” Her voice was encouraging. I gave her a small smile. “Any panic attacks?”

I shook my head. “Not since that last one at Vegabond.” The bar had been packed, everyone kept touching me. Not on purpose, the place had just been that crowded. I didn’t like it. The next thing I knew I was having trouble breathing. Miles had realized what was happening. The boys worked together to get me out the side door and into the fresh air. I made a point not to go into crowded places now.

“Have you had any flashbacks?” Dr. Smith asked.

“Nope, not since I told the guys not to touch me from behind unless I know it’s them,” I replied. “But I still have flashes occasionally.”

Dr. Smith’s eyes narrowed at me. “Are they still walking you to class?”

“Every single one,” I admitted.

She smiled and shook her head at the same time. “Have you gone anywhere alone this week?”

I smirked. “Miles is in the waiting room.” Dr. Smith sighed deeply as she shook her head again. She had met the guys at our first appointment. Zeke had insisted that one of them be there, they had just forgotten to choose who and everyone had shown up.

“Lexie, you need to learn you can be without them. That you’re safe even if they aren’t there,” she said gently. I nodded.

“I know. And I think I’m ready to,” I told her. “With Hades, though.”

Dr. Smith smiled. “That’s a good start.”

“I’m also thinking of going to see about a job at the tattoo shop in town. See if I can learn anything,” I said. Dr. Smith smiled encouragingly.

“That is a great step, Lexie,” she said. Then her smile faded. “How are things with the boys?”

I looked over her shoulder at the wall of bookcases. “They’re supportive, loving, you know, the usual,” I hedged.

“Lexie,” she said in her ‘come clean’ voice. I sighed and met her eyes.

“Zeke and I are still having problems. I still haven’t been able to hug him since the hospital,” I admitted. “I tried and… had a flashback.”

Understanding lit Dr. Smith’s eyes. “Is this affecting your relationship?”

I shrugged. “He’s distant but always around.”

“He’s also probably struggling, Lexie,” Dr. Smith explained. “From what you’ve told me he’s a protective person, and you were attacked. That’s going to take some time for him to deal with.”

“I know.” I checked the clock on the wall. “Time’s up.”

She chuckled. “That’s my line,” she chided. I snorted. “Your homework this week is to go out without the boys, go to the tattoo shop and try to hug Zeke again. Remember your exercises.” I nodded and got up off the couch with Hades’ leash in hand.

“Thanks, Doc,” I called over my shoulder as I opened the door.

Miles looked up from the magazine in his hands. His high cheek bones and angled jaw made him cute, but it was his smile that showed you how handsome he really was. That and the intelligence in his emerald eyes whenever he got excited about something. His wavy, brown hair was back to curling a little again, he needed a trim. He pushed the bridge of his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose before getting to his feet. His eyes ran over me, his mouth a tight line.

“Is everything alright?” he asked in his quiet timbre. I nodded.

“I just have some homework,” I explained as we headed for the door.

Miles opened the door for me then followed me out into the hallway. “What kind?”

“The kind that Zeke isn’t going to like,” I admitted. Miles hit the button for the elevator then gave me a gentle smile.

“If it’s what’s best for you, he’ll do it,” Miles reassured me. I raised an eyebrow as the elevator doors opened.

I waited for them to close before I told him, “She wants me to go out alone.” Miles’ silence was enough to make my shoulders tense.

“If it’s what the doctor suggested and what you want, we’ll do as you ask,” Miles said in a careful voice. He was right. I just didn’t want to be the one to tell Zeke. It seemed like I have done nothing but hurt him since I came back from the hospital. After my last attempt to hug him, he’s walked on eggshells around me and kept at least three feet distance between us at all times. And that conversation about our kiss? Forget about it. ‘When you’re ready’ he’d say. I hated this. We reached the ground floor.

“I know,” I muttered as we walked out into the lobby. “Our communication hasn’t exactly been the best lately.” Several people spotted Hades and backed away quickly. I had gotten used to that reaction lately and I honestly didn’t mind.

Miles walked me to his car in silence. I opened the back door so Hades could jump in.

When I turned around Miles’ eyes were full of understanding.

“He’ll listen to you, Lexie,” he reminded me, holding the passenger door open. I nodded. He was right. I was the only one who could get Zeke to listen.

I got into Miles’ car, and he closed the door behind me. When Miles climbed in on the driver’s side, he had a small smile on his face. “But right now, the guys are surrounded by the twins’ cousins. They’ve been sending me an SOS every five minutes for the last hour.”

I chuckled, “Let’s get over there and watch the chaos.

That was exactly what we found at the twins’ house. Pure chaos. Well, the backyard was. The twins’ four cousins were in town. They visited every spring vacation for a few days when their school had two weeks off. Lucky. This just happened to be the day that Maria, the twins’ mom, and Ana, her sister, went out to the spa for some pampering while leaving the boys in charge of the kids for the afternoon. Miles and I had been more than happy to go to my appointment earlier.

We stepped out onto the back porch and gaped. Toys littered the lawn as Isaac was chasing Amelia, a four-year-old little girl in pigtails, while her twin sister, Isabel, was playing quietly with her dolls in the shade on the lawn. Their six-year-old brother, Marcos, chased Isaac trying to soak him with the hose. The oldest boy, Mateo, had water balloons and he wasn’t afraid to use them on Asher. I let Hades off the leash. He ran off to join the fun chasing Marcos.

Ethan noticed us from his spot on a lawn chair in the shade near Isabel. He got up and crossed the lawn, getting hit in the process. By the time he reached the safety of the porch, his shirt had several big wet patches. Ethan’s square jaw, wide full lips, and straight nose made him the heartbreaker of our school. Even with his jaw length black hair back in a tie, showing off the five silver rings running up his ear lobe, he was still yummy. His chocolate eyes had dark rings under them as they ran over me.

“Hey, how’d it go?” he asked in his smoky, smooth voice. I shrugged.

“Not bad. I’ve got homework though.” I ran my eyes over his face. “Are you sleeping alright?”

“Yeah, fine,” he assured me. “What’s your homework this time?”

I looked around the backyard. “I’ll tell you later. Were you hiding out?”

Ethan grinned. “Nah, it was my turn for a break. But Zeke’s hiding. He’s changing the oil in our car in return for not having to watch the kids.” He leaned on the rail next to me and watched the chaos. Mateo nailed Asher in the back with several balloons, soaking him. Everyone started laughing as he turned to chase the eight-year-old.

Isaac stopped chasing Amelia and climbed the steps to shoot a look at Ethan. “Your turn. Who gave the twins sugar?” he asked, out of breath.

I smirked.

“That was Asher and you,” Ethan said as he headed down the stairs. Isaac took his spot next to me. Isaac and Ethan were identical twins, but that only meant they looked the same. While Ethan wore all black, Isaac wore bright colors. His black hair had been dyed a vibrant blue with darker blue streaks through it. The sides were still shaved and the top shorter than it was a few months ago. Isaac nudged my shoulder and gave me a smile. I bumped back with my own and grinned.

“You up for tonight, Red?” Isaac asked. I thought about it. There was a party tonight on the shore across the lake. It’d be my first party since January.

I chewed the corner of my lower lip and nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

Isaac nudged my shoulder, getting my attention again. “We can leave anytime. Just say the word.” His reminder warmed my heart.

“I know.” I tucked a flyaway hair behind my ear.

Asher came up the stairs huffing and puffing. Asher was your typical boy next door. If you lived next to a model that is. His high cheekbones and sharp chin belonged in commercials. His short, sandy blond hair was freshly trimmed. His white undershirt was soaked, clinging to the muscles of his chest, arms and stomach. I had to remind myself not to stare.

Asher glared at Isaac. “Get back out there, I need a break,” he huffed as he went to sit down on the wooden bench at the end of the porch. His ocean eyes met mine. And I mean ocean. With blue, light blue and white flecks, his eyes reminded me of an ocean wave crashing. I turned to watch him drip water onto the porch.

“Aren’t you supposed to be this hot-shot Quarterback?” I teased. He shot me a half grin.

“Yeah, I am. But nothing can outlast a four-year-old on a sugar high,” he countered.

“You gave them cookies, didn’t you?” I asked. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

“Only one each,” he admitted. “But then Isaac went and snuck them the whole bag.”

I laughed at the anguish in his voice, then turned back and watched Marcos chasing Ethan with the hose as Ethan tried to get Amelia out of the way. I contemplated going inside when a girl’s cry went up instantly getting everyone’s attention. Isabel was soaked. Marcos had missed Ethan and hit his little sister. Marcos kinked the hose as he went to her already apologizing.

“No!” Isabel shouted. “I want Uncle Zeke.” Isabel turned and ran toward the old garage at the back of the yard. “Uncle Zeke!” she cried, wiping her face. Zeke came out of the open garage door, frowning as he wiped the grease off his hands with an old towel.

Zeke was a mountain of muscle. Two heads taller than me and a frame that was several times wider. He was a hard guy to miss. Not that he wasn’t handsome. His black hair, wide cheekbones, and a wide, strong jaw gave his face a very rough, frightening look. And when he scowled most people ran for it. His all black clothes, motorcycle boots and wallet chain didn’t help. The secret to getting along with Zeke was simple. Leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone. Unless you hurt me or pushed me… or insulted me… Okay, just leave me the fuck alone and you’ll be fine with Zeke. Isabel ran right up to him and pointed back at her brother.

“Marcos soaked me!” she cried, tears falling down her face. Zeke sighed. When he reached her, he knelt down. Isabel threw herself into his arms, crying about how she didn’t want to ruin her new dress. Zeke picked her up and whispered to her, calming her down as he strode back toward the now subdued boys. He came up to Marcos, took the hose and handed it to Isabel. The little girl squealed happily as she soaked her brother.

“Now, you’re even,” Zeke told her in his deep, gravelly voice. Zeke put her down and she happily chased after a screaming Marcos. Zeke’s sky-blue eyes spotted me. His gaze ran over me before he headed up the steps. “How’d your session go?”

I sighed. I was starting to feel like a broken record. “Good. I have homework.”

His brow drew down. “What kind?”

“I’ll tell you guys about it after dinner,” I promised. With the kids running around crazy it was too loud to tell them. Especially with what Zeke’s reaction was likely to be.

Since I came home from the hospital, someone had been with me every time I left the house. Zeke demanded it, and I needed it to be honest. I wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

That chill ran down my neck, but it was like a finger-tip. A soul was nearby and I knew who. As the guys talked, I stepped back and headed inside.

“Red?” Isaac called.

“Just gotta use the bathroom. Damn,” I shot over my shoulder. There were small chuckles as I went into the kitchen.

There, standing at the window looking out into the backyard was Sophie. The twins’ little sister’s soul. The eight-year-old girl was standing in front of the sink, watching her cousins and brothers out the kitchen window. She had Maria’s long black hair, big brown eyes, and a sweet, pretty face. Her eyes watered.

“Sophie?” I kept my voice soothing. She didn’t take her gaze off the others outside. “You can’t go outside, can you? Not without using the extra energy running around?” She shook her head.

“I’m ready, Lexie,” she all but whispered. She turned to me, tears running down her face.

“I want to cross soon.” My pulse skipped as her energy hit my barriers. They trembled once but held firm.

“Are you sure?” I asked gently.

She nodded and wiped her face. “I don’t want to watch them anymore. Mom’s mostly okay but Ethan keeps pulling me back. And Isaac…” She swallowed hard as her tears fell faster. “I need to go soon.” I moved to stand next to her and look out the window.

“We’ll need to talk to your brothers first. You know that,” I told her gently. She nodded.

“I can’t keep doing this,” she sniffed. My eyes burned as I blinked back my own tears.

“Can you wait till your cousins are gone at least?” I asked quietly. Sophie nodded, then gave me a sad smile.

“It was good to see them one more time,” she admitted. She wiped her face.

“I can wait a few more days. When I’m ready, I’ll break one of Ethan’s guitars.”

“Okay. Then I’ll tell the twins and we’ll figure out how Ethan keeps pulling you back,” I assured her. How the hell were the twins going to take this? She nodded quietly then turned away from the window and walked further into the house.

I took a deep breath and let it out. Sophie was ready to go. Shit. At least I had until Monday to figure out how to tell them. I took another deep breath and let it out slowly before heading back outside.

I joined Miles and Asher at the railing.

I was in my own head when Asher nudged me with his elbow. “Hey, are you okay?”

I gave him a tense smile and nodded. His brow furrowed as he kept eye contact, silently asking. Hell, he probably heard me talking in the kitchen anyway. I mouthed Sophie’s name.

Understanding filled his eyes. He reached over and gave my hand a squeeze. I gave him a squeeze back.

I turned to the yard just in time to spot Isaac turning towards us with the hose. I instantly dropped as water sprayed over the others on the porch. Shouts and curses filled the air as I stayed dry. The porch shook as the guys ran down the steps after Isaac.

Laughing, I stood up and watched Asher get the hose from Isaac. Zeke pinned his arms as Asher soaked him head to toe, getting Zeke in the process. The kids and I were in hysterics. I was just getting control of myself when the back door opened. Maria came outside followed closely by her younger sister Ana. Ana was the same height as her sister, with the same beautiful thick black hair, though her amber eyes were lighter than Maria’s. She had a square face and a beautiful smile.

“What are you doing?” Maria asked, a smile on her face. All the boys immediately let go of Isaac and dropped the hose.

“Ma! They attacked me!” Isaac shouted.

“Isaac soaked us on the porch, so we were getting even,” Asher explained. Maria and Ana chuckled.

“Boys, go get in dry clothes,” Ana ordered. “Pizza will be here in half an hour.” Isaac and Ethan ran for the house. Zeke, Miles and Asher headed for the gate between the yards. They must have had some clothes at Asher’s.

Maria wrapped an arm around me. I leaned into her hug.

“How did you manage to get away dry?” Maria asked. I smiled.

“I saw Isaac with the hose and ducked,” I admitted. They chuckled.

Ana was the first to sober. She looked out to the yard. “Kids. Inside and in dry clothes. Now!” The younger ones ran for the house while Mateo turned off the water before following. I couldn’t help but admire the way she handled her kids.

Maria gave me a squeeze. “How are you doing, honey?”

“Better,” I said.

She smiled down at me. “Good, I missed my sassy girl.” She squeezed my shoulder. “Come on, let’s set the table.” I nodded and followed her inside, more than ready for dinner.

Dinner was lively with so many in the kitchen. Zeke, Miles and I ended up eating at the counter. I didn’t mind. I was sitting on the counter anyway.

“Miles, you really need a trim, honey,” Maria said as she helped dish up Isabel’s plate.

Miles reached up and felt his hair. I bit back a grin as his cheeks tinged pink. I loved watching her mother the boys.

“I’ll go this week,” Miles agreed sheepishly.

Maria finished helping Isabel as she asked over the noise from the kids, “Asher? How did your essay for English go?”

Asher swallowed his food. “I got an A-, I’m not really happy about it but-”

“It’s still an A,” Maria pointed out with a look. I couldn’t seem to stop smiling. At least until she turned to me.

“Lexie, what are your plans for tonight?” she asked. “We’re having a board game night with the kids.”

“Um, well, we’re going to a party on the lake,” I said carefully. I didn’t know if the twins told their mom about going to the party or not. Maria nodded then looked at all the boys.

“You boys keep an eye out for her. I’m not asking,” she warned.

“I’d like to see someone try and stop us,” Isaac offered. The guys chuckled. I just shook my head at them and kept eating. Maria went back to questioning each of us, making her way through the room.

“You know, we could skip the party,” Zeke reminded us.

“Zeke, I’m going,” I told him. “Jake and Derrick are coming down. I haven’t seen them in weeks.”

“It should be manageable,” Miles reminded him. “There’s another party out on the Simmons’ property. The crowd should be smaller than usual.”

I looked up at Zeke with a grin. “See,” Zeke grumbled wordlessly, sounding resigned. I lost my grin. “If you don’t want to go then you don’t have to, Zeke.” He shot me a look. I looked up at him with understanding. A few months ago, Zeke had kissed me. Then I was kidnapped by my stalker. We still hadn’t talked about the kiss yet.

“Not happening,” he grumbled before biting into a slice of pizza. I went back to my own dinner, dropping the subject.

After dinner the little ones had to clean up. I took the opportunity to signal to the guys to meet me on the porch. We all slipped out as Maria and Ana started talking in the living room.

The porch was large and had enough seating for most of us. Putting Sophie out of my mind for now, I sat on the railing in front of the boys since I was going to be talking. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hoping it would help with the knots in my stomach. Zeke leaned against the railing on the far-left side of the porch while the others took the wicker couch and chairs. All eyes turned to me.

I took a deep breath and began. “Today, the doc gave me several things to do this week. The first was to try and get a job at the tattoo parlor in town.” I looked around the group trying to judge their reactions. Asher nodded; everyone else was calm. Now the big one. “Another was to go out alone. Without anyone but Hades.”

Everyone went still. The only sound was my heartbeat in my ears. It was forever before one of them spoke up.

“Are you ready for that, Ally?” Asher asked gently. I bit the corner of my bottom lip as I thought about it again. Then nodded.

“I think it’s time,” I said. “You guys have been so patient with me being scared and clingy-”

“You’re not clingy,” Isaac snapped.

“You needed us,” Ethan added.

“Ally…” Asher sighed.

“Lexie, you’re family,” Miles pointed out, “we’d do anything to help you.” He leaned forward, his elbows braced on his legs. His emerald eyes on mine. “Don’t factor us in when you think about this. Are you ready to go out on your own?”

I took a deep breath and thought about it. It was scary, and made my stomach twist but

I nodded. “Yeah, I’m tired of hiding behind you guys. I’m tired of being afraid all the time.” My voice turned scratchy. I took a drink from my water bottle before continuing. “I want my life back.” The guys gave me understanding smiles.

“No,” Zeke growled. And there was the hiccup. Zeke shook his head, his arms crossed over his barrel chest. “No way are you going out without one of us with you.”

I looked at the others. “Can you guys give us a minute?” The others got to their feet and headed inside. I waited until the door was closed before I got off the railing and moved to stand a few feet in front of Zeke. “Zeke-”

“Lexie, no,” he growled, his voice hard. His posture was rigid.

“Zeke. I need to do this,” I said gently. “I can’t hide behind you guys all the time and I don’t want to. That’s not who I am.” Zeke clenched his jaw. I kept going. “I haven’t had a flashback or panic attack in a month. I’m ready for this.” My voice was confident. I had to make this okay for him otherwise it’d just be a huge fight.

Zeke looked down at the porch and took deep breaths. It was several minutes before he met my eyes. “You text me, tell me where you’ll be and when you get back,” he stated. I went to protest but he cut me off. “It’s the only way I can, Lexie.” I thought about it. He was right. Zeke had his own issues to deal with. We needed to work together on this.

“I can do that,” I agreed. He nodded. I wanted to hug him. But it seems Clay took that away from me. Instead, I reached up and touched the tip of his nose. “Boop.” His lips moved into a half grin, the shadows in his eyes lifting a bit. I smiled up at him.

I was going to get my life back. I was going to hug Zeke again, get a job, and go out without the boys. I could do this. I got this. Right?

After dark, as we left the twins’ house, the guys were deciding who was going with who.

“Red’s with us,” Isaac announced. I rolled my eyes.

“I have room for everyone,” Zeke pointed out.

“Yeah but you’ll want to leave before everyone else,” Ethan countered. Zeke shrugged. Ethan wasn’t wrong.

“I’m riding with Miles,” I announced. “You’ve had too much sugar and are bouncing around like a rabbit.” Isaac blew a raspberry at me as he headed towards the car he and Ethan shared. Everyone climbed into their cars and headed for the north shore of the lake.

“We can leave if you get too uncomfortable, Lexie,” Miles said.

“Miles, I’m going to be fine. I’m actually looking forward to the party,” I assured him. “And if I have an issue, you guys will be there and you can haul my ass out caveman style.”

He chuckled. “That may be more Zeke’s style.” I grinned. Zeke had done it before, I doubt he’d have a problem doing it again.

Miles pulled into a spot near the back of the lot where there were enough spaces for all of us. The others parked next to him. I got out and took a deep breath as we headed across the lot. Music was blasting, and the bonfire was already roaring. I wrapped my arm around Isaac’s as we walked.

“You’re not drinking tonight?” I whispered. It wasn’t necessary, not with Ethan and Asher talking about some baseball game.

Isaac’s other hand came up and squeezed my hand on his arm. “Nah, I don’t want to be wasted if you have trouble.”

I squeezed his arm. “Thanks, Cookie Monster.”

He smirked down at me. “No problem, Red.” I smiled up at him then turned back to the party on the shore.

I had already dealt with the dead this morning, and I was determined to have fun. Especially since Sophie’s crossing was coming up. Before dread could ruin my night, I pushed it to the back of my mind and looked around.

Since the party was on the beach, I hadn’t bothered changing my jeans or shirt. I just took one of my black hoodies with me, pulled my hair into a ponytail and called it good.

By the time we hit the sand, I could tell the beach wasn’t packed with people and that was perfect for me.

“Let’s grab some drinks,” Asher suggested. We headed for the drink coolers, Miles behind me, the twins to my sides and Zeke in front of me with Asher. It had become our usual walking pattern. While I appreciated it, I was trying to get out of the safe zone I had put myself in the last few months. I grabbed a bottle of water and looked around the beach.

A tall, lilac-haired girl darted through the crowd. I flinched but she was on me in a heartbeat.

“Lexie! You came!” Riley practically deafened me with her shout. I relaxed, laughed and hugged her back. The guys around me relaxed. Riley pulled back. Her pretty oval face and almond eyes beaming down at me. Zeke’s ex-girlfriend was one of my favorite girls around, hands down.

“I said I would,” I reminded her.

Riley rolled her eyes and turned to the boys. “Hey guys! Can I take Lexie or are you guys going to tag along for girl talk? Again?”

I turned to the guys. This would be a good way to ease all of us into me going out on my own.

Every one of them was frowning, Asher was rubbing his neck, Ethan twisting his rings, Miles tapping that staccato rhythm on his leg and Zeke was running his hand through his hair.

“If you stick to her like glue,” Zeke said. Riley went still. I tensed. Being friends with Zeke’s ex was complicated. So far, they hadn’t had any major issues, and I was hoping that wouldn’t change.

“I promise not to leave her alone,” Riley offered. Zeke’s jaw was clenched as he nodded stiffly. Riley wrapped her arm around mine and pulled me away from the guys.

We walked to the other side of the fire where Jake and Derrick were standing in the sand. Jake was cute, there was no way around it. He was a head taller than me, his short, styled blond hair was streaked with lighter blond highlights. His green eyes were sparkling as he looked at his boyfriend, Derrick.

“Look who I managed to pry away from the boys!” Riley announced as we reached them.

Jake turned to me, squealed and practically jumped on me in his rush to hug me. I forced myself to relax as I hugged him back.

Since January we hadn’t really been able to have our coffee shop gossip sessions. We’d settled for phone calls but it wasn’t the same. He let go only enough to wrap his arm around my shoulders. I turned to Derrick.

The goth boy was the same height as Jake. His dark hair was streaked with purple and spiked. His average face had a nose ring, eyebrow stud, and lip ring that, oddly, seemed to suit him.

I smiled. “Hey, Derrick.” Derrick grinned, came forward, and shoved his boyfriend away so he could hug me tight. I chuckled, braced myself and hugged him back.

“I’m so glad to see you out tonight,” he whispered to me as his light cologne filled my nose. “We’ve missed you. Jake has been impossible.” I giggled as he let me go.

“Well, I’m back.” I looked over at Jake’s smiling face. “You can’t get away with that anymore.” Jake made an ‘aw shucks’ face as Derrick moved back to his side.

“So, how’d you get away from the guys?” Jake asked.

“Yeah, I never thought they’d let you out of their sight,” Riley added.

“I’m probably not,” I admitted. “I’m sure one of them has me in sight at all times.” Jake, Derrick and Riley looked around me in unison, and they weren’t subtle. I laughed.

“Yep,” Derrick confirmed.

“It’s Asher, he’s trying to make it not look obvious,” Jake explained.

“And failing miserably,” Riley added. “He’s barely talking to the other football players.”

They were giggling as they turned back to me.

“We’re trying something new,” I hedged. I really didn’t want to get into it. I looked at Jake and Derrick. “So, how’s coupledom?”

Jake’s cheeks turned red as Derrick answered, “It’s not bad.”

I smiled mischievously. “Oh, really?”

Jake smacked my arm, his face beet red. “Stop it, woman.” I chuckled as he fanned himself. Derrick laughed quietly, making Jake turn vermillion.

“That good, huh?” I asked, dying to know now.

Derrick turned to me. “I got my tongue pierced.” Everyone burst out laughing except Jake.

“Oh my God.” Jake closed his eyes, a pained look on his face. “TMI, babe!” I kept laughing.

Jake opened his eyes then eyed me. “Don’t make me ask about your love life.”

“I don’t need a love life, I’m surrounded by hot guys all the time,” I pointed out. Everyone chuckled.

“Well, you can’t argue with her there,” Derrick admitted with a smile.

“Now if only she’d do something about it,” Jake added. I rolled my eyes and changed the subject.

“Derrick, tell me more about this tongue piercing…?” I asked innocently. Jake’s face turned crimson again.

“Well, so far-”

“Don’t you dare,” Jake warned Derrick as he held back a smile. Riley and I cracked up. I let the subject drop.

“So, what’s the latest gossip?” I asked.

“Well, the latest is that Jason is cheating on Jessica with Michelle Hart,” Riley offered. My mouth dropped.

“How did I miss this?” I demanded. “Ethan is slacking on his gossip skills.”

“Word is they were seen going at it at a party last weekend,” Jake supplied. I cringed.

“Ew,” I stated. An upbeat song came on. It made me want to dance instantly. I reached out and took Jake’s hand. “Sorry, Derrick, but I need to borrow your guy for a dance.”

“Go for it,” Derrick said, his hand shooing me as I dragged Jake out near the bonfire where everyone was dancing.

I moved to the music and danced with Jake to the upbeat tempo. After a couple songs, the music changed to slow song. Jake pulled me in.

“So, how’s the crush situation?” he whispered. I was so grateful for Jake. He was the only one who knew I was crushing on Zeke, Miles, and Asher. And he didn’t judge me for it.

I sighed. “Not great. I’m still crushing on them but at the same time I haven’t really felt it for a few months.”

“What do you mean felt?” He raised an eyebrow and gave me his mischievous grin.

I shot him a look. “Butterflies, heart pounding. You know. That rush you get when you’re around your crush.”

Jake’s gaze met mine, the sympathy filling his eyes made me want to squirm. “That might have something to do with January, Lexie,” he pointed out gently.

“That’s what the shrink said,” I muttered. “She says it’ll come back when I’m ready.”

Jake’s eyes unfocused. “Or you’ve moved past the ‘oh my God he’s so cute’ phase.”

“Nope, no, no way. I like that phase,” I stated emphatically. “I don’t even know what’s past that phase.” Jake was laughing when a hand came down on his shoulder.

“Care if I cut in?” Asher asked. Jake grinned wickedly.

“Asher, you already had your chance. I’m with Derrick now,” Jake chided. I snickered as Jake let go of me and turned to Asher. “But I guess I can make an exception. Just this once.”

Jake went to grab Asher to dance with him.

Asher batted his hands away playfully. “Don’t make me tell Derrick!”

I started laughing as Asher called for Jake’s boyfriend. Jake stopped messing with Asher.

“Tattle-tale,” Jake chided before turning to a smiling Derrick. “Hi, babe.”

“Are you causing trouble?” he asked, pulling him in to dance. Jake draped his arms over his shoulders.

“Never,” Jake teased. They moved off, dancing in the crowd. Asher moved closer, took my hand and held it as he placed the other on my waist.

“How are you doing, Ally girl?” he asked softly.

I smiled up at him. “I’m having fun. How about you?”

He smiled as we turned in the sand. “Not bad.”

“How’s Zeke handling the change in our routine?” I asked, curious.

“He’s handling it in typical Zeke fashion,” he hedged. I sighed.

“He’s being a grumpy ass?” I guessed. He chuckled.

“Yeah, pretty much.” His eyes ran over my face then back to my eyes. “But I get it. I got used to you being around more.”

“I’m not disappearing. I’m just… getting back to normal,” I reminded him. “Normal is good.”

“I know and I’m glad you feel up to it,” he said. “I’m just going to miss you a bit more.”

I smiled up at him then enjoyed my dance with Asher. The song ended and a fast one with a hard beat came on. He took his hand from my waist and he held my hand a little longer before letting go.

“Shout if you need me,” he reminded me.

“Will do,” I promised. He headed back to his other friends while I went back to Riley, Jake, and Derrick.

Over the next three hours the beach got more crowded. Jake and Derrick had gone off for a ‘walk’ and Riley dragged me over to talk to her other friends. Looking around I realized the guys weren’t within sight. They must have relaxed. I smiled to myself as I tried to listen to the story Riley was telling.

Someone bumped into me. I jumped, my heart slamming into overdrive as I turned. The girl was drunk and staggering. Her friends helped her move off towards the cars. The crowd seemed to press in on me. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Everyone was jumping, dancing and having a good time. But all I saw were people I didn’t know around me. The crowd was getting to me. I needed a breather.

I excused myself and slipped away from Riley’s group into the crowd. I kept taking slow deep breaths until I could get out of the crush and closer to the shore. I walked away from the party towards the lake, people bumped into me making me jump and shaking my insides. I focused on breathing.

When the music wasn’t so overwhelming, I sat down in the sand and watched the waves lap onto the shore. The knots in my stomach eased. I focused on what was around me. The full moon shined down on the water, making the small waves shine. It was cool out but not too cold.

Clouds were moving in over the lake, it looked like a storm might be on the way in. Other than that, it was a nice night.

I started to regroup. I had come out with confidence in my ability to deal, but with the crowded party that confidence was fading. I was going to have to stay on the edges. That’s okay, as long as I don’t leave because of it. You can do this, Lexie. Clay is in jail. No one here is going to hurt you. The guys are within ear shot. You got this.

I had just calmed myself down when someone stepped next to me. Ryan, the drummer in Ethan’s band, was standing there with his hands in his pockets.

Ryan wasn’t a bad looking guy. He was just big and burly. His brown hair was still buzzed down to his scalp. He had a horseshoe shaped ring through the septum of his nose and a new gunmetal stud in his eyebrow. His gray eyes were warm as he grinned down at me.

“Hey, what’s going on?” he asked, crouching down in the sand.

“I just needed a breather from the party,” I admitted. He nodded before he sat down. His rich, musky cologne came over the breeze. My stomach rolled as I was instantly thrown back to that night in January. Clay’s face flashed in my mind. His grip on my neck. He had worn the same cologne the night he kidnapped me, the night he…. I shook my head and forced myself to stay in the present. I could do this. Just because it’s the same doesn’t mean Ryan will…. It’s Ryan and he isn’t going to hurt me. The guys are only a shout away.

My shoulders grew tense anyway. I hadn’t been alone with anyone except one of the guys or family for months. Breathe, Lexie. You’re okay. You’ve got this. Ryan’s gray eyes were on me, his face curious.

“You okay?” he asked as he settled in the sand next to me.

I nodded and forced a smile. “Yeah, it’s… just your cologne.” I changed the subject. “How’s the new singer working out?”

“She’s not as good as you,” he stated, “but she’s working.”

“She’ll get better,” I offered. “Ethan says you guys just need to find your niche with her.” He shrugged.

“Yeah, it just stinks.” He looked over from the waves. “How are you really doing?”

I resisted the urge to growl. I was getting tired of that question. “I’m doing alright.”

“Where are your guards tonight?”

I grinned. “They’re here. We’re trying something new.” Slowly, the tension started to ease in my shoulders. This was Ryan. The guy was a big sweetheart.

“Oh yeah? Going stir-crazy?” He chuckled. I smiled at him.

“Something like that,” I admitted. “I’m just ready to get back to normal.”

“That’s good to hear,” he muttered. “So, how big is Hades now?”

“Mid-thigh and still growing.”

He shook his head. “You should bring him by practice sometime. He could be our mascot.”

I shrugged. I really didn’t want to see Ethan and their new band member singing together. Something inside me told me I wouldn’t like it. “I’ll see what I can do.” I looked back out on the water as an awkward silence fell. Ryan was probably just being nice and trying to keep me company. The least I could do was keep the conversation going. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

He sighed. “I don’t have much planned,” he admitted. “I was hoping to maybe get a date.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard,” I said. “You’re in a band after all.” He chuckled.

“Yeah, I don’t know. This one doesn’t seem to be impressed by that,” he countered.

I glanced back at him before looking out at the water again. He had a thoughtful look on his face. “You’re a nice guy, Ryan. She’ll probably say yes,” I said absently. I should probably head back to the party before one of the guys started looking for me.

“You think so?”

I nodded. “Sure, why not?” I started to turn back to him. “We should head-” His lips met mine.

Surprised, I gasped. Rich musky cologne filled my lungs. I wasn’t on the shore anymore. I was in the woods being dragged back to the cabin. I shoved him away from me and scrambled out of reach. Horror filled me as Clay squeezed my neck then ran his hand over me. I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my shaking arms over my head. Oh, God… no, no, no.

“Lexie?” a voice asked. That cologne. Terror tore through me.

“Don’t touch me. Please, don’t touch me,” I bit out, trying not to scream. Clay grabbed me between the legs, hard. Tears fell and my stomach churned as he kept forcing me toward the cabin.

“Lexie?” The voice was uncertain. “I’m getting one of the guys, okay?” I knew Clay was in jail. I knew I wasn’t at the cabin. But logic was out of reach. The cabin was all I could see. All I could feel as he tackled me to the floor. Heart slamming in my chest, Clay pinned me to the floor then drove his knee into my groin. I felt it. Every blow, every hit. The fear, the pain, the nausea. All over again.

“Lexie.” A smoky, smooth voice got my attention. The musky cologne changed to spicy. That wasn’t Clay, that was Snoopy.

“You’re outside, at the lake,” Ethan said gently. I stopped rocking. I was still seeing the cabin. I reached out to him desperately, as if he was the light switch in a dark room that I was desperately looking for because something was breathing in the dark.

Ethan gathered me in his arms, holding me to his chest. I buried my face into his shirt, my hands clinging to the fabric, rubbing the cotton material between my fingers. The anvil in my chest was making it hard to breathe.

“What’s going on?” Ryan asked, his voice worried. Ethan ignored him as he held me in his arms, rocking me side to side.

“You’re not in the cabin, Beautiful. You’re safe with me, we’re sitting in the sand on the north shore of the lake.” His voice helped ground me as Clay’s weight pressed me into the floorboards. I nodded, so he knew I heard. “Lexie, what month is it?”

I focused on his voice, his question. “April.”

“Good, what day?” he asked patiently.

I fought to turn away from the memories and think. “F-Friday.”

“That’s right,” he said. “What did you do after school?”

“I came over to your house, and your cousins were there,” I answered, his questions helping ground me.

“Then Zeke got totally suckered by a four-year-old. Remember?” he asked. I nodded again, still clinging and trying to breathe as Clay’s hands tightened around my neck.

“How did you get to the party?” Ethan’s voice brought my attention back to him.

I swallowed hard as I struggled to come back. “Miles drove.”

“That’s right. Now, where’s Hades?” he asked gently.

“At home,” I mumbled as tears poured down my face. Footsteps ran towards us.

“Who am I?” he asked.

“Snoopy. Ethan,” I whispered, my heartbeat filling my ears.

“That’s right. I’ve got you, Lexie.”

“Flashback?” Asher’s rich baritone brought me back a bit more. Asher hadn’t been at the cabin. I’m not at the cabin, I’m sitting on the shore of the lake… Tears kept falling as I felt it all fresh again.

“Yeah,” Ethan said, his hand moving to hold my cheek. It helped ground me even more. “Who came with us tonight?”

I focused on answering and not the memories, “Everyone.”

“Name them, Beautiful,” he whispered.

“You, Isaac, Asher, Zeke and Miles,” I recited through the knot in my throat. The flashback was fading. I knew where I was but the aftermath… that wouldn’t let up.

“It’s okay, Beautiful, cry all you want. I’ve got you.” I nodded against his shirt as his arms tightened around me. He kept rocking me and telling me about his day, how nice the moon looked over the lake. Eventually, limes mixed with spice in my nose.

“Red, breathe for us,” Isaac’s rich honey-like voice said before a hand rested on my shoulder.

It helped. I was safe, Isaac and Miles got me out of the cabin. Clay Ordin was in jail. It was spring. I’m not in the cabin. I kept thinking it over and over. The jingle of keys started somewhere far off.

“What happened?” Asher asked, his voice hard.

“Nothing, she was fine one second and the next she wasn’t,” Ryan said, his voice concerned. The key jingle grew louder, then stopped.

“Not buying it,” Isaac said. “She’s been doing better for the last month.”

“What the fuck did you do?” Zeke’s snarl helped pull me back more. There was a scuffle.

I focused on the fact that I was on the shore. That Clay Ordin hadn’t touched me in months. He couldn’t get to me. I didn’t need a shower. Isaac and Ethan started humming that tune I loved.

“Let him go, Zeke!” Asher snapped. “Ally’s having a flashback. It’s not a good time for you to lose it around her.” Leather and engine grease filled my nose.

“Give her to me,” Zeke growled. My flashback may have been over but I wasn’t ready to face anything yet. I was still struggling to breathe.

“You know I can’t, man.” Ethan reminded him quietly. Zeke cursed.

“What happened?” Miles’ silky-smooth timbre reached my ears. The pressure in my chest began to ease.

“Flashback.” Asher, Ethan, Isaac, and Zeke answered in unison.

“What triggered her?” Zeke demanded. There was silence.

“Ryan, tell us what happened?” Miles asked calmly, in a firm voice.

“She said something about my cologne when I sat down,” Ryan told them, baffled.

Isaac’s hand left my shoulder. Wintergreen tickled my nose. I stopped burying my face in Ethan’s chest. I laid my cheek against his shoulder, my forehead against the warmth of his neck. I was back but I was still in pieces in the sand. I kept my eyes closed and tried to pull it together.

“What the hell are you doing?” Ryan snapped.

“He’s wearing the same fucking cologne Ordin was.” Isaac bit out. All the guys, except Miles, cursed.

“How do you know that?” Ryan asked.

“I got a real good sniff when I was beating the shit out of him,” Isaac said, his voice boiling.

“Is that it? You sat down and this happened?” Asher’s voice demanded an answer. I listened to Ethan’s heartbeat, that soothing tune slipping through my ears. It helped ease the tightness in my chest even more.

“I…” Ryan began awkwardly. “I might… have kissed her.” Ethan stopped rocking me. His body grew tense around me.

Isaac cursed “You son of a-”

“What the fuck, Ryan?” Ethan snapped. “I told you not to make a move! I told you she wasn’t there yet!”

“I know! I should have fucking listened.” Ryan shouted back. “She just… seemed fine.”

“Of course, she did,” Miles explained. “Because she was. Until you did that.” Miles’ calm voice helped; I realized the guys were pissed at Ryan, but it wasn’t his fault.

“It was the cologne.” I managed in a small shaking voice. Everyone stopped yelling.

Fingers brushed my hair back from my face. I opened my eyes. Miles was kneeling in front of me. His emerald eyes warm on mine.

“Was it only his cologne?” Miles asked gently. I hesitated. He noticed. “Lexie?”

“He… he just surprised me,” I mumbled. Zeke let out a deep growl. Isaac and Asher blocked Zeke before he could reach Ryan. Ryan backed up even more, his hands up and away from his body.

“Get out of here, Ryan!” Isaac grunted as he fought to keep Zeke away. “Or Zeke’s going to kill you!” Ryan sent me an apologetic look before heading back towards the bonfire.

Zeke stopped fighting the others only to pace up and down the shoreline. I closed my eyes and tried to stop crying. I focused on taking deep breaths and knowing that the guys were around me.

When I finally stopped, I opened my eyes.

Miles wiped my cheeks with Zeke’s handkerchief. “Are you ready to go home?” I nodded. It was humiliating. I had been fine, confident even. Then one smell, one surprise and bam! I was a crying mess. I hated it.

“I’ll carry her.” Isaac’s voice said not to argue.

“I can walk to the car,” I said quietly.

Isaac crouched down in front of me. “You’re sure?”

“I need to,” I muttered.

Ethan kissed my forehead before letting me go. Isaac reached out, took my hands and helped me to my feet. He wrapped his arm around me as we started moving through the crowd. I leaned against him a little, feeling exhausted. It was as if I had just run a marathon, and in a way, I had. The others made a path as we walked through the party and out to the parking lot.

I had let them down. I had promised that I was okay to be left alone and I let them down. I pushed that thought away as my eyes burned again.

When we reached the twins’ car, Isaac opened the passenger door. Ethan made sure I was buckled in. I hid my face in my hands.

“I’m sorry, guys,” I told them, my voice tired.

“It’s okay, Ally.”

“This is all part of the healing process.” Miles reminded me.

“Don’t be stupid Red, this party sucked.”

“Yeah, we were talking about leaving anyway. You’re just giving us a reason, Beautiful.”

Zeke was quiet. I dropped my hands and looked up at them. Not one of them seemed angry or frustrated as they closed my door. I kept my gaze on the floor of the car as Ethan pulled out of the lot and headed back to town. Through the drive my mind became clearer.

By the time they pulled up to my house I was doing better. I took off my seat belt.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No problem, Beautiful” Ethan said instantly.

My door opened. Isaac reached in to help me to my feet. I took his hand and climbed out of the car. I shut the door then turned to the house. I had a flash of being grabbed on the front step. The lawn had been covered in snow, the porch light was only bright enough to see my keys. I hadn’t even realized he was behind the tall bushes next to the door. I hated the front of Rory’s house now. The sage green craftsman was a great house, pretty even. I just didn’t like the bushes next to the door or the shadows all over the yard. I shuddered. Isaac’s hand tightened on mine as he gave me a small tug to get me going.

I unlocked the door, then Isaac went in first. I followed and disarmed the new security system Rory had installed. After punching in the combo I turned back to Isaac. He wordlessly pulled me into a hug.

“It’ll get better, Lexie.” he reminded me.


“Promise.” He gave me a squeeze then kissed my cheek before heading out the door. I turned the deadbolt and turned the system on again.

I went to my bedroom and shoved a snoring Hades to the other side. I laid down, not bothering to change out of my clothes. My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was Ryan.

Ryan: I’m sorry. Please tell me you’re alright?

Poor guy, he probably thought it was all his fault.

Alexis: I’m okay.

Ryan: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know about the cologne.

Alexis: It wasn’t your fault. Don’t worry about it.

Ryan: You’re tired, go to sleep. Night.

Alexis: Night.

I held my phone half expecting Zeke to text me. Sure enough, ten minutes later someone did.

Ethan: Are you okay?

I smiled to myself.

Alexis: I’m okay. Just tired.

Ethan: Do you want some company?

Alexis: Nah, I’ll be fine.

Ethan: Are you sure? I’m more than willing to sneak out.

Alexis: Yeah, I’m good.

Ethan: Alright. Get some sleep.

Alexis: You too.