About the Author

K.A. Tucker

K.A. Tucker published her first book at the age of six with the help of her elementary school librarian and a box of crayons. Today, she is the author of the Ten Tiny Breaths and the Burying Water series. She currently resides outside of Toronto with her husband, two beautiful girls, and an exhausting brood of four-legged creatures.

Books by this Author
Becoming Rain

Becoming Rain

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Audiobook
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Excerpt

Becoming Rain

PROLOGUE

CLARA

It’s a modest Seattle suburban home, with two stories, steep gables, and cream-colored siding. A row of artless bushes lines the walkway, courtesy of the builder’s unimaginative landscaping. It looks exactly like the house to its left and too similar to the house to its right.

And yet the number above the garage marks this house as altogether unique.

I hunch down in the passenger seat of the cruiser, just enough to spy the glow from the second floor through the cold drizzle. A bay window frames the blond woman swaying, the little boy curled within her arms, his cheek resting against her shoulder in a way that suggests he’s asleep.

“Where are they going to go?” I ask, eyeing the large “For Sale” sign staked into the front lawn. Just another thing for the neighborhood to look at as they throw sympathetic glances on their way by.

“She can’t make the mortgage,” Officer Burk confirms through a casual sip of coffee, its pungent aroma filling the car’s interior. “Her parents have a farm outside the city. Sounds like that’s where they’re heading.”

“He had no life insurance? Nothing?”

“She had to take a loan out on the house just to pay for the funeral.”

A dull pang throbs in my chest as I watch Betty-Jo Billings drift over to the window, listless eyes resting on the driveway below, where puddles of water pool in the indents formed by the tires that used to sit there. The exact place where her husband waved to her for the last time before climbing into the passenger side of his cherry-­red Ford F-250. The truck he had advertised for sale on Craigslist. The truck he was allowing a prospective buyer to test drive.

Seattle police found Wayne Billings’s body fourteen days later in a city dump. The truck hasn’t turned up and it probably never will. No witnesses to interrogate, except for Wayne’s wife, and all they could get from her was that the driver wore a baseball hat and he was dropped off by someone in a dark sedan. She hadn’t been paying any real attention and I understand why. With a two-year-old hanging off her leg and a three-week-old baby in her arms, the poor woman was asleep on her feet, exhausted. When Wayne left, all she was probably thinking about was the family-friendly minivan they would buy with the cash from the truck.

The wipers swish back and forth in a monotonous song and heat blasts out from the dashboard to counter the chill in the damp spring air. I arrived on the West Coast one week ago and, though locals swear it’s not usually this bad, it hasn’t stopped raining.

I don’t mind it at all. I find it soothing, actually.

“It’s a real shame. Everyone says he was a decent guy. His kids will never get to find out,” Burk murmurs in that wearied voice that tells me that this is just another case to him. He has succumbed to the job. It’s not his fault; it’s how many cops learn to deal with the kinds of things we see every day.

Detachment.

The case sits open, but the local police force has pretty much written it off. I knew that the second I made the request for the files. Under a generic guise of a Washington, D.C., cop researching similar cases on the East Coast, of course. None of these guys knows why I’m really here.

I peer up at the little boy’s angelic face again.

And make a silent promise that Rust Markov—and anyone tied to him—will pay.

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Burying Water
He Will Be My Ruin
Excerpt

He Will Be My Ruin CHAPTER 1
Maggie

November 30, 2015

The afternoon sun beams through the narrow window, casting a warm glow over Celine’s floral comforter.

It would be inviting, only her body was found in this very bed just thirteen days ago.

“Maggie?”

“Yeah,” I respond without actually turning around, my gaze taking in the cramped bedroom before me. I’ve never been a fan of New York City and all its overpriced boroughs. Too big, too busy, too pretentious. Take this Lower East Side apartment, for example, on the third floor of a drafty building built in the 1800s, with a ladder of shaky fire escapes facing the side alley and a kitschy gelato café downstairs. It costs more per month than the average American hands the bank in mortgage payments.

And Celine adored it.

“I’m in 410 if you just . . . want to come and find me.”

I finally turn and acknowledge the building super—a chestnut-haired English guy around thirty by my guess, with a layer of scruff over his jawline and faded blue jeans—edging toward the door. Given the apartment is 475 square feet, it doesn’t take him long to reach it.

I think he gave me his name but I wasn’t listening. I’ve barely said two words since I met him in front of Celine’s apartment, armed with a stack of cardboard flats and trash bags. An orchestra of clocks that softly tick away claim that that was nearly half an hour ago. I’ve simply stood here since then, feeling the brick-exposed walls—lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and filled with the impressive collection of treasures that Celine had amassed over her twenty-eight years—closing in on me.

But now I feel the need to speak. “You were the one who let the police in?” Celine never missed work, never arrived late. That’s why, after not showing up for two days and not answering her phone or her door, her coworker finally called the cops.

The super nods.

“You saw her?”

His eyes flicker to the thin wall that divides the bedroom from the rest of the apartment—its only purpose is to allow the building’s owner to charge rent for a “one-bedroom” instead of a studio. There’s not even enough room for a door. Yes, he saw her body. “She seemed really nice,” he offers, his throat turning scratchy, shifting on his feet. He’d rather be unplugging a shit-filled toilet than be here right now. I don’t blame him. “Uh . . . So you can just slide the key through the mail slot in my door when you’re finished, if you want? I’ll be home later tonight to grab it.”

Under different circumstances, I’d find his accent charming. “I’ll be staying here for a while.”

He frowns. “You can’t—”

“Yeah, I can,” I snap, cutting his objection off. “We’re on the hook with the lease until the end of January, right? So don’t even think of telling me that I can’t.” I’m in no rush to empty this place out so some jackass landlord can rent it next month and pocket my money. Plus . . . My gaze drifts over the living room again. I just need to be in Celine’s presence for a while, even if she’s not here anymore.

“Of course. I’m just . . .” He bites his bottom lip as if to stall a snippy response. When he speaks again, his tone is back to soft. “The mattress, the bedding, it’ll all need to be replaced. I would have already pitched it for you, but I figured that it wasn’t my call to make. I pulled the blanket up to cover the mess and tried to air the place out, but . . .”

I sigh shakily, the tension making my body as taut as a wire. I’m the only jackass around here. “Right. I’m sorry.” I inhale deeply. The linen air freshener can’t completely mask the smell. Her body lay in that bed for two days.

Dead.

Decomposing.

“I’ll be fine with the couch until I can get a new mattress delivered.” It’ll be more than fine, seeing as I’ve been sleeping on a thin bedroll on a dirt floor in Ethiopia for the past three months. At least there’s running water here, and I’m not sharing the room with two other people. Or rats, hopefully.

“I can probably get a bloke in here to help me carry it out if you want,” he offers, sliding hands into his pockets as he slowly shifts backward.

“Thank you.” I couple my contrite voice with a smile and watch the young super exit, pulling the door shut behind him.

My gaze drifts back to the countless shelves. I haven’t been to visit Celine in New York in over two years; we always met in California, the state where we grew up. “My, you’ve been busy,” I whisper. Celine always did have a love for the old and discarded, and she had a real eye for it. She’d probably seen every last episode of Antiques Roadshow three times over. She was supposed to start school this past September to get her MA in art business, with plans to become an appraiser. She delayed enrollment, for some reason.

But she never told me that. I found out through her mother just last week.

Her apartment looks more like a bursting vintage shop than a place someone would live. It’s well organized at least—all her trinkets grouped effectively. Entire shelves are dedicated to elaborate teacups, others to silver tea sets, genuine hand-cut crystal glassware, ornate clocks and watches, hand-painted tiles, and so on. Little side tables hold stained-glass lamps and more clocks and her seemingly endless collection of art history books. On the few walls not lined with shelves, an eclectic mix of artwork fills the space.

Very few things in here aren’t antique or vintage. The bottles of Ketel One, Maker’s Mark, and Jägermeister lined up on a polished brass bar cart. Her computer and a stack of hardcover books, sitting on a worn wooden desk that I’d expect to find in an old elementary schoolhouse. Even the two-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree has well-aged ornaments dangling from its branches.

I wander aimlessly, my hands beginning to touch and test. A slight pull of the desk drawer finds it locked, with no key anywhere, from what I can see. I run a finger along the spine of a leather-bound edition of The Taming of the Shrew on a shelf. Not a speck of dust. Celine couldn’t stand disorder. Every single nutcracker faces out, equidistant from the next, shortest in front, tallest in back, as if she measured them with a ruler and placed them just so.

Being enclosed in this organized chaos makes me antsy. Or maybe that’s my own ultra-minimalist preferences coming out.

I sigh and drop my purse onto the couch. My phone goes next, but not before I send a text to my personal assistant, Taryn, to ask that she arrange for a firm double mattress to be delivered to Celine’s address. Then I power the phone off before she can respond with unnecessary questions. I’ve had it on silent since my plane landed in San Diego five days ago for the funeral. Even with two proficient assistants handling my organization’s affairs while I’m dealing with my best friend’s death, the stupid thing hasn’t stopped vibrating.

They can all wait for me, while I figure out where to begin here.

I know I have a lot of paperwork to get to the lawyer. All estate proceeds will eventually go to Celine’s mother, Rosa, but she doesn’t want a dime. She’s already demanded that I sell off anything I don’t want to keep for myself and use the money for one of my humanitarian efforts in her daughter’s name.

I could tell Rosa was still in shock, because she has always been a collector by nature—that’s where Celine got it from—and it surprised me that she wouldn’t want to keep at least some of her daughter’s treasures for herself. But she was adamant and I was not going to argue. I’ll just quietly pack a few things that I think would mean a lot to her and have them shipped to San Diego.

Seeing Celine’s apartment now, though, I realize that selling is going to take forever. I’m half-tempted to dump everything into boxes for charity, guesstimate the value, and write a check. But that would belittle all the evenings and weekends that Celine devoted to hunting antique shops, garage sales, and ignorant sellers for her next perfect treasure.

My attention lands on the raw wood plank shelf that floats over a mauve suede couch, banked by silky curtains and covered with an eclectic mix of gilded frames filled with pictures from Celine’s childhood. Most of them are of her and her mom. Some are of just her. Four include me.

I smile as I ease one down, of Celine and me at the San Diego Zoo. I was twelve, she was eleven. Even then she was striking, her olive skin tanned from a summer by the pool. Next to her, my pale Welsh skin always looked sickly.

I first met Celine when I was five. My mom had hired her mother, Rosa Gonzalez, as a housekeeper and nanny, offering room and board for both her and her four-year-old daughter. We had had a string of nannies come and go, my mother never satisfied with their work ethic. But Rosa came highly recommended. It’s so hard to find good help, I remember overhearing my mother say to her friends once. They applauded her generosity with Rosa, that she was not only taking in a recent immigrant from Mexico, but her child as well.

The day Celine stepped into my parents’ palatial house in La Jolla, she did so with wide brown eyes, her long hair the color of cola in braided pigtails and adorned in giant blue bows, her frilly blue-and-white dress and matching socks like something out of The Wizard of Oz. Celine would divulge to me later on that it was the only dress she owned, purchased from a thrift shop, just for this special occasion.

Rosa and Celine lived with us for ten years, and my daily routines quickly became Celine’s daily routines. The chauffeur would drop Celine off at the curb in front of the local public school on our way to my private school campus. Though her school was far above average as public schools go, I begged and pleaded for my parents to pay for Celine to attend with me. I didn’t quite understand the concept of money back then, but I knew we had a lot, and we could more than afford it.

They told me that’s just not how the world works. Besides, as much as Rosa wanted the best for her child, she was too proud to ever accept that kind of generosity. Even giving Celine my hand-me-down clothes was a constant battle.

No matter where we spent the day, though, from the time we came home to the time we fell asleep, Celine and I were inseparable. I would return from piano lessons and teach Celine how to read music notes. She’d use the other side of my art easel to paint pictures with me of the ocean view from my bedroom window. She’d rate my dives and time my laps around our pool, and I’d do the same for her. We’d lounge beneath the palm trees on hot summer days, dreaming up plans for our future. In my eyes, it was a given that Celine would always be part of my life.

We were an odd match. From our looks to our social status to our polar-opposite personalities, we couldn’t have been more different. I was captain of the debate squad and Celine played the romantic female lead in her school plays. I spearheaded a holiday charity campaign at the age of thirteen, while Celine sang in choirs for the local senior citizens. I read the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times religiously, while Celine would fall asleep with a Jane Austen novel resting across her chest.

And then one Saturday morning in July when I was fifteen, my parents announced that they had filed for divorce. I still remember the day well. They walked side-by-side toward where I lounged beside the pool, my dad dressed for a round of golf, my mom carrying a plate of Rosa’s breakfast enchiladas. They’d technically separated months earlier, and I had no idea because seeing them together had always been rare to begin with.

The house in La Jolla was going up for sale. Dad was buying a condo close to the airport, to make traveling for work easier, while Mom would be moving to Chicago, where our family’s company, Sparkes Energy, had their corporate headquarters. I’d stay wherever I wanted, when I wasn’t at the prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts that they decided I should attend for my last three years of high school.

The worst of it was that Rosa and Celine would be going their own way.

Rosa, who was more a parent to me than either of my real parents had ever been.

Celine . . . my best friend, my sister.

Both of them, gone from my daily life with two weeks’ notice.

They’re just a phone call away, my mom reasoned. That’s all I had, and so I took advantage. For years, I would call Celine and Rosa daily. I had a long-distance plan, but had I not, I still would have happily driven up my mom’s phone bill, bitter with her for abandoning me for the company. I spent Christmases and Thanksgivings with Rosa and Celine instead of choosing to spend them with Melody or William Sparkes.

To be honest, it never was much of a choice.

Through boyfriends, college, jobs, and fronting a successful nonprofit organization that has had me living all over Africa and Asia for the last six years, Celine and Rosa have remained permanent fixtures in my life.

Until thirteen days ago, when Rosa’s sobs filled my ear in a village near Nekemte, Ethiopia, where I’ve been leading a water well project and building homes. After a long, arduous day in the hot sun, my hands covered with cuts from corrugated iron and my muscles sore from carrying burned bricks, it was jarring to hear Rosa’s voice. California felt worlds away. At first I thought that I hadn’t kept myself hydrated enough and I was hallucinating. But by the third time I heard her say, “Celine killed herself,” it finally registered. It just didn’t make sense.

It still doesn’t.

Hollowness kept me company all the way back—first on buses, then a chartered flight, followed by several commercial airline connections—and into Rosa’s modest home in the suburbs of San Diego. The hollowness held me together through the emotional visitation and funeral, Rosa’s tightly knit Mexican community rocked by the news. It numbed me enough to face Rosa’s eyes, bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles, as she insisted that I come to New York to handle the material remains of her only child.

The case is all but officially closed. The police are simply waiting for the final autopsy report to confirm that a lethal dose of Xanax—the pill bottle sitting open on her nightstand was from a prescription she filled only two days prior—combined with an unhealthy amount of vodka was what killed her. They see it as a quick open-and-shut suicide case, aided by a note in her handwriting that read I’m sorry for everything, found lying next to her.

The picture frame cracks within my tightening grasp as tears burn my cheeks, and I have the overwhelming urge to smash the entire shelf of happy memories.

This just doesn’t seem possible. How could she do this to her mother? I shift my focus to the picture of Rosa—a petite brunette with a fierce heart, who gives hugs to strangers who look like they’re having a bad day and spouts a string of passionate Spanish when anyone tries to leave the dinner table before every last bite is finished.

Before this past week, I hadn’t seen Rosa since last Christmas. She still looks frail eleven months after the doctors told her that the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation had worked and she was considered in remission. It’ll be a year in January since the day Celine phoned me to give me the good news: that Rosa had fought breast cancer hard. And had won.

So why the hell would Celine make her suffer so horribly now?

I roam aimlessly through the rest of the apartment, in a state of extreme exhaustion after days of travel and jet lag and tears, taking in everything that remains of my childhood friend.

But there are things here that surprise me, too—a closet full of designer-label dresses that Celine couldn’t possibly have afforded on an administrative assistant’s salary, a bathroom counter overflowing with bold red lipsticks and daringly dark eye shadows that I never saw touch her naturally beautiful face, not even in recent photos.

Knowing Celine, she bought those dresses at secondhand stores. And the makeup, well . . . She would have looked beautiful with red lipstick.

I smile, sweeping the bronzer brush across my palm to leave a dusting of sparkle against my skin. I’m supposed to be this girl—the one with the extravagant clothes and makeup, who puts time and stock into looks and money. As the fourth generation of one of the biggest energy companies in the world, I will one day inherit 51 percent of the corporation’s shares. Though my parents don’t need to work, they each run a division—my industrialist father managing the ugly face of coal burning while my mother distracts the world with a pretty mask of wind and solar energy farms, hiding the fact that we’re slowly helping to destroy the world.

I grew up aware of the protests. I’ve read enough articles about the greed and the harm to the planet that comes with this industry. By the time I turned twenty-one, still young and idealistic and embroiled by the latest disgrace involving our company and an oil tanker spill off the coast of China, I wanted nothing to do with the enormous trust fund that my grandmother left me. In fact, I was one signature away from handing it all over to a charity foundation. My biggest mistake—and saving grace—was that I tried to do it through my lawyer, a loyal Sparkes Energy legal consultant. He, of course, informed my parents, who fought me on it. I wouldn’t listen to them.

But I did listen to Celine. She was the one who persuaded me not to do it in the end, sending me link after link of scandal after scandal involving charity organizations. How so little of the money ever actually reaches those in need, how so much of the money lines the pockets of individuals. She used the worst-case scenarios to steer me away from my plan because she knew it would work. Then she suggested that I use the trust fund to lead my own humanitarian ventures. I could do bigger, better things if I controlled it.

That’s when I began Villages United.

And Celine was right.

VU may only be six years old, but it has already become an internationally recognized nonprofit, focused on high-impact lending projects throughout the world geared toward building self-sustainable villages. We teach children to read and give them roofs to sleep under and clean water to drink and clothes to wear and books to read. Between my own money and the money that VU has raised, we have now left a lasting mark on thirty-six communities in countries around the world.

And I’m not just writing checks from my house in California. I’m right there in the trenches, witnessing the changes firsthand. Something my parents simply don’t understand, though they’ve tried turning it into a Sparkes Energy PR venture on more than one occasion.

I’ve refused every single time.

Because, for the first time in a long time, I’m truly proud to be Maggie Sparkes.

I haven’t even warned them about my newest endeavor—providing significant financial backing to companies that are developing viable and economical green energy solutions. VU was preparing to announce it to the media in the coming weeks. As much as I can’t think about any of that right now, I’ll have to soon. Too many people rely on me.

But for now . . . all I can focus on is Celine.

I wander into her bedroom, my back to another wall of collectibles as I stand at the foot of the ornate wrought-iron bed, the delicate bedding stretched out neatly, as if Celine made it this morning. As if she’ll be back later to share a glass of wine and a laugh.

I yank the duvet back, just long enough to see the ugly proof beneath.

To remind me that that’s never going to happen.

Edging along the side of her bed—I actually have to turn and shimmy to fit—I move toward a stack of vintage wooden food crates that serve as a nightstand. A wave of nostalgia washes over me as my finger traces the heavy latches and handmade, chunky gunmetal-gray body of the antique box sitting next to the lamp. The day that I spied it in an antique store while shopping for Celine’s sixteenth birthday, it made me think of a medieval castle. The old man who sold it to me said it was actually an eighteenth-century lockbox.

Whatever it was, I knew Celine would love it.

I carry it over to the living room, where I can sit and open it up. Inside are sentimental scraps of Celine’s life. Concert stubs and random papers, a dried rose, her grandmother’s rosary that Rosa gave to her. Rosa is supremely religious, and Celine, the ever-devoted daughter, kept up appearances for her mother, though she admitted to me that she didn’t find value in it.

I pull each item out, laying them on the trunk coffee table until I’m left with nothing but the smooth velvet floor of the box. I fumble with a small detail on the outside that acts as a lever—remembering my surprise when the man revealed the box’s secret—until a click sounds, allowing me to pry open the false bottom.

Celine’s shy, secretive eyes lit up when I first showed her the sizeable compartment. It was perfect for hiding treasures, like notes from boys, and the silver bracelet that her senior-year boyfriend bought her for Valentine’s Day and she was afraid to wear in front of Rosa. While I love Rosa dearly, she could be suffocating sometimes.

My fingers wrap around the wad of money filling the small space as a deep frown creases my forehead. Mostly hundreds but plenty of fifties, too. I quickly count it. There’s almost ten thousand dollars here.

Why wouldn’t Celine deposit this into her bank account?

I pick up the ornate bronze key and a creased sheet of paper that also sits within. I’m guessing the key is for the desk. I’ll test that out in a minute. I gingerly unfold the paper that’s obviously been handled many times, judging by the crinkles in it.

My eyes widen.

A naked man fills one side. He’s entrancingly handsome, with long lashes and golden-blond tousled hair and a shadow of peach scruff covering his hard jawline. He’s lying on his back, one muscular arm disappearing into the pillow beneath his head, a white sheet tangled around his legs, not quite covering the goods, which from what I can see, are fairly impressive. I can’t tell what color his eyes are because he’s fast asleep.

“Well then . . .” I frown, taken aback.

I’m not surprised that Celine could attract the attention of a guy like this. She was a gorgeous young woman—her Mexican roots earning her lush locks, full lips, and voluptuous curves tied to the kind of tiny waist that all men seem to admire.

Nor am I surprised that he’s blond. It has always been a running joke between us, her penchant for blonds. She’s never dated anything but.

But I am surprised that she’d have the nerve to take—and print out to keep by her bed—a scandalous picture like this in the first place.

I wonder if she ever mentioned him to me. She always told me about her dates, utter failures or otherwise. Though it’s been years since she was seeing anyone seriously, and she was definitely seeing this guy seriously if she was sleeping with him. Celine usually waited months before she gave that up to a guy. She didn’t even lose her virginity until she was twenty-two, to a guy she had been dating for six months and hoped that she would one day marry. Who broke up with her shortly afterward.

So who the hell is this guy and why didn’t I ever hear about him? And where is he now? When were they together last?

Does he know that she’s dead?

Worrying my bottom lip between my teeth—it’s a bad habit of mine—I slowly fold the paper back up. Celine’s cursive scrawl decorates the back side in purple ink. Words I hadn’t noticed before.

Words that make my heart stop now.

This man was once my salvation. Now he will be my ruin.

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In Her Wake

In Her Wake

A Ten Tiny Breaths Novella
edition:Paperback
also available: Audiobook eBook
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Excerpt

In Her Wake

Chapter 1

April 26, 2008

“Last one and then we’re heading out.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” Derek’s deep voice carries over the steady thrum of house music. He hands off an empty beer bottle to a passing buddy in exchange for two full ones, tossing one to me. “It’s what,” he glances at his watch, “only twelve. And we drove an hour to get here!”

Twisting the cap off, I suck back a big gulp, the fresh, cold liquid like icy relief on a scorching day. Even though it’s April in Michigan and barely tipping the freezing mark outside, it’s sweltering hot in here. “I warned you that I wanted an early night. I’m hitting the books first thing tomorrow morning or I’m screwed.” Four finals in three days. I’m screwed either way. That’s probably why the Millers are going down so damn fast tonight. I’m definitely more relaxed than I was when we first arrived.

“You’ll be home by tomorrow morning. Until then . . .” He gives his cousin’s living room—jam-packed with a blend of college kids and locals—a once-over, stalling on two blonds who look like they could still be in high school.

“If we don’t head out soon, I’ll be a write-off and you know it.” It’s no surprise that Derek’s busting my balls to stay. He’s never been one to miss a party. Normally we have to pry him off the keg. But I only agreed to watching the hockey game—the Red Wings are in the play-offs, after all—and somehow it turned into this. If it weren’t my last Friday night in Michigan, I would have said no in the first place. “Don’t you have finals to worry about, too?”

Derek shrugs, taking another long drag of his beer and then settling his eyes on the brunette tucked into the tight space beside me on the couch. Michelle, I think she said her name was. She’s pretty and sweet, and she’s casually nudged her thigh against mine enough times for me to know she’s into me. But, even though it’s been six weeks since Madison came to visit me and I’m dying to get laid, I’m not about to cheat on my girlfriend. Especially not for a one-nighter.

I ignore Derek’s dumb smirk. “Where’s Sasha?”

He dips his head to the left. I follow his lead to where our friend stands toe-to-toe with a brawny guy wearing a blue Wolverines T-shirt, their lips moving fast and tight. If I had to guess, their little “chat” has something to do with our bowl game against the other Michigan college football team three months ago—which we won—and things are about to heat up. It doesn’t help that Sasha wore his “Spartans rule, Wolverines drool” shirt tonight, knowing we were heading into U of M territory.

“Great,” I mutter, dragging my six-foot-three-inch frame off the couch. The room sways and I stumble slightly, my foot bumping the tidy line of empties on the floor.

I’ve had way more than I planned on having in the last four hours.

Shit.

I’m the DD tonight.

I guess that means we’re stuck here for a while. And I’ve probably just fucked myself over for finals.

Wandering over to Sasha, I drop my hand on his shoulder, getting a good grip in case I have to pull him back. Sasha’s no runt, only an inch short of matching my height and, thanks to an intense off-season practice schedule, just as built. He can handle his own. I should know; we’ve been roughhousing together since we were in diapers.

“We all good here?” I eye the guy in front of him, an olive-­skinned Latino with a unibrow and an intimidating scowl. I don’t recognize his face from the field. Then again, we all wear helmets and I don’t waste my time on anything but which number I need to take out.

Sasha thrusts a hand through his shaggy brown hair—almost identical to mine in color—but doesn’t answer me, eyes locked on the other guy. I’ve seen him like this before. It almost always ends up in a fight.

“Sash? Finals start next week,” I remind him. They’ll be hard enough without swollen eyes and split lips. Plus, I can’t be getting into a fight with my healing shoulder.

“Yeah.” The word drags on Sasha’s tongue and then he smirks. “We’re good. Just sharing some helpful tips. You know, the basics. Like how to throw a fucking ball to your receiver.”

I step in between them to serve as a barrier just as the other guy leans in.

Thankfully, Derek’s cousin, Rich—a big guy himself—strolls out from the kitchen then. “Take it outside. I don’t want my place trashed.”

Sasha’s hands lift, palms out, in an act of surrender. “Nothing to take outside. We’re good.” Slapping Rich’s hand in a friendly way, he leads me away. But not before tossing a wink over his shoulder at Unibrow.

I shake my head but I’m chuckling. “You’re a dick. You know that?” When you’ve lived next to a guy for eighteen years, shared hockey pucks and bloody noses and secrets about rounding bases with girls in school, you can say that without repercussions.

Sasha’s the brother I never had.

His smug smile hasn’t faded. “I know. And we probably need to get the fuck out of here now because I just gave that asshole the gears. He’s gonna pummel me soon, no doubt. I’d hit me if I were him.”

“Sorry, man. We’re stuck here for a bit. I lost track of the beers.” This sucks. I really just want to get home. Maybe Rich knows of a sober girl here that Sash can hit up. Maybe—

“I’ll drive,” Sasha offers.

“Seriously? You good?” That would make things easier.

“Yeah. I’ve been chugging water for the past hour. I’ve got finals to worry about, too.”

My body sags with relief.

“Come on.” He jerks his head toward the door and holds his hand out. “Let’s go.”

“All right.” I slide the keys of my Suburban out of my jeans pocket. It’s actually my dad’s SUV. We swapped cars over spring break so I can haul back the essentials when I head home for the summer.

I toss them to Sasha.

He has to dive to catch them, taking a few quick steps to regain his balance as he stands upright. “Forgotten how to throw already?” he mutters with a grin.

¦ ¦ ¦

“Stay for summer classes!” Sasha drops the SUV into fourth gear as the quiet, dark road opens up into a long stretch toward Lansing and our apartment near the Michigan State campus. He’s still pissed that I’m going back to Rochester until July. When I told him, he didn’t talk to me for two days.

We’ve never had a choice but to stay in Lansing, what with the football summer training schedule. But then I tore my rotator cuff in the last bowl game and had to have surgery to repair it over spring break, so I’m out for the time being. Maybe for good.

Secretly, I’m happy to be going home for a while. I’m even happier that I won’t be pushing sleds uphill and running hundred-­yard sprints every day at six a.m. As good as I am at the game—and I’m good, otherwise I would never have made a team like the Spartans in the first place—I never held any ambitions to go beyond college ball.

Still, Sasha and I have never been apart for more than a week.

“Nah . . . Madison would kill me if I changed my mind now.” I let my spinning head fall back against my headrest and close my eyes. I could pass out right here. Maybe I’ll get a half-decent night’s sleep tonight after all.

“She can come visit,” Sasha grumbles.

Derek’s loud bark of laughter erupts from the backseat. “You actually wanna listen to Cole givin’ it to your little sister in the room next to you?”

“Shut the fuck up, Maynard.” I crack an eye to see Sasha’s knuckles white against the steering wheel. It took Sasha the better part of a year to come to terms with me dating Madison. Four years later, he still gets uptight with any conversation that even hints at his sister getting laid.

“It’s just for a few months, bro. I’ll be back at the apartment before you know it,” I say, trying to ease Sasha’s ire.

“Well, I for one am happier than a pig in shit that you’ll be gone,” Derek announces. When I let the guys know, Derek immediately jumped on the chance to take my room. He lives with his parents in a small house just outside Lansing and, though his folks are nice, I don’t blame him for wanting some space.

I’ve known Derek for almost as long as I’ve known Sasha. Derek’s family lived with his grandparents three doors down from my parents for a few years while Derek’s dad struggled to keep a job in the failing IT industry. Apparently my mom went to welcome them—an apple pie in hand and me clinging to her leg—and Derek greeted us in a pink polka-dot dress. By choice. I don’t remember it, but Sasha and I sure as hell have teased him enough about it over the years. I’m kind of surprised he kept in touch with us after they moved to Lansing.

I chuckle. “Have at ’er. Just leave it clean.”

“Are you sure you want to agree to that, Cole?” Sasha chuckles. “You’ve seen what he picks up.”

“Hey now . . .” Derek’s warning tone only spurns Sasha on.

“What was the last one’s name? Tia? Ria?”

“Sia.”

“Sia,” Sasha echoes. “That chick was—”

¦ ¦ ¦

Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a paramedic. Can you hear me? You were in an accident. We’re going to help you.

Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a paramedic. Can you hear me? You were in an accident. We’re going to help you.

“Hi, my name is Tara. I’m a—”

“What?” The single word scratches my throat. I open my eyes to the dark sky hanging over me, flashes of red and blue light pulsing rhythmically within my peripherals. Wailing sirens assault my ears, both distant and approaching.

So many sirens.

A woman leans over me. She locks eyes with me and speaks in a calm voice. “Hi, I’m Tara. I’m a paramedic. You were in an accident. Everything is going to be okay. Can you tell me your name?”

I pause, struggling to process her words. “Cole.” It hurts to swallow.

Someone else is crouched beside me. I try to turn my head to see who it is, to figure out what’s going on.

But I can’t turn my head.

“Just hold still, Cole,” Tara says as something tightens across my chin. It’s then that I notice the stiff brace wrapped around my neck.

“What happened?”

“You were in a car accident, but don’t worry. We’re going to get you to a hospital real soon.” An ambulance’s ear-piercing wail abruptly cuts off behind me as brakes squeak.

“How bad is it?” Besides the pain in my neck, I can’t feel much of anything else.

“We just need to finish securing your neck as a precaution,” she explains, not answering my question, as the other person tightens a strap over my forehead.

Car.

I was in the car.

Who was I in the . . .

Sasha.

Derek.

“Where are they?” My eyes strain, first to the left and then to the right, but I can’t see anything. “Where are my friends?”

“Everyone is being taken care of, Cole. Do you know what month it is?”

I have finals next week. Yes. I need to get back for finals. “April.”

“Good. Who is the president of our country, Cole?”

“Bush.”

“And how old are you, Cole?”

She keeps using my name. Why does she keep doing that? “Twenty. Twenty-one in December.”

The other paramedic finishes working on the straps. Hands that I didn’t realize were holding my head in place disappear as Tara offers me a sad smile. “Do you remember where you were tonight?”

“A party. At Rich’s house.” I pause. “Where’s Derek? Sasha?”

“There are several paramedics on-site. Everyone is being taken care of.” She calls out to someone unseen, “Can we get him out of here?”

A gruff “yes” answers and suddenly I’m moving. Low voices and competing emergency lights surround me from all angles. I search with my eyes—the only part of my head that I can move besides my mouth—to catch a glimpse of something. Anything. But the straps pin me down tight.

“They’ll bring my friends to the same hospital, right?”

“They’ll get the best care possible,” Tara says, climbing into the back. Again, not really answering my question.

Just as the ambulance doors are closing, a voice crackles over a police radio nearby.

All I catch is “D.O.A.” before the locks click shut.

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