The next day, it almost started to feel like a routine. Ryder was driving us – or to be exact, me – to school. Today Jez drove her own white BMW, driving right behind Ryder and me.
I didn’t talk much. Ever since my, er, conversation with Gunner yesterday, I kept to myself. At dinner, I’d let everyone talk about whatever and just kept quiet. Danger had asked me, “Is there anything wrong, redling?” and I hadn’t even bothered answering or telling him to stop call me that. I had just had no will.
This morning was the same. I was feeling hollow, still deep in thoughts, and I didn’t know what to feel, what to believe, which side to pick. It seemed as if my whole life was crumbling in front of me, and nothing could stop it. For the thousandth time, I wished I hadn’t walked into the Moore’s house three days ago, that I’d have just called the cops and got it over with instead of playing Nancy Drew – the scary type. But scientists still haven’t invented a time machine, so I had no way to redeem my actions, unfortunately.
“Hey,” Ryder suddenly asked, making my head snap toward him. His puppy-like gold eyes looked at me with open concern, his shoulder-length, wavy brown hair blowing in the cold wind that came out of his open window. “Are you okay? You seem a little pale and you didn’t eat much at breakfast.”
It was unlike me not to eat, but my feelings kept me from feeling any hunger. “I’m fine,” I said, kinda appreciating his concern. “Thanks.”
“No problem, but I’m worried and so do Danger and Gunner,” he said, and I tensed at Gunner’s name. Apparently Ryder noticed that and crooked a knowing grin. “Ah, it’s Gunner then, isn’t it?” he said fondly, as if he understood me yet knew that that was Gunner, and that there was nothing we could do to change him.
Denying seemed like a stupid idea, so I just nodded. He sighed. “Don’t let him get to you, little girl,” he advised. “Gunner has his moments where he can be as stubborn as a brick wall, and nothing and no-one would move him. If you find him intolerable, just keep a safe distance from him. That’s what everyone does.”
I closed my eyes and leaned back to my seat. “I don’t like dealing with people who’re more stubborn than I am,” I admitted, “and I’m not good at it.”
“That can be a problem,” Ryder said, “but it seemed like Henry likes to pair-up Gunner with you when you need to be told something or doing something. Henry’s a very strange man.”
I glanced at him, realizing something. “You all don’t call him ‘dad’ or even Father or something,” I said. “Why? Aren’t you his children?”
Ryder sighed. “We all were adopted at an older age than usual under certain circumstances. We knew our real parents for at least ten years by the time Henry took us under his wing. Calling him ‘dad’ or ‘Father’ just doesn’t feel right, even if our own dads were kind of assholes.”
That was something I didn’t know. “Wait, so were you all adopted at the age of ten?”
“Something like that,” Ryder nodded. “I was the last one to be adopted. I think Gunner and Danger were first, then Jez. By the time we were adopted, Henry had already had Mad, who’s older than all of us and is now happily married. But we all just kind-of grew up together, see?”
“Oh,” I mumbled. “But why, then, would Henry adopt you? I mean, you said yourself you had parents, or family.”
“We certainly had parents, but you can’t call the life any of us had a ‘family life’.” His voice turned bitter. “But I’m sorry, it’s not something I want to talk about. Besides, that’s not entirely my story to tell. If you wanna know, you should wait until we trust you enough. Right now, you’re still sort-of a danger to all of us.”
Sighing, I looked out of the window and saw the school entering my sight. “Fair enough,” I muttered.
Now if only I could just decide if I wanted them all to trust me, and if I wanted to put my trust with them.
“There’s still no sign from Echo or the other Moores,” Isobel told me first thing in the morning, before class started. She looked worriedly at Jez, who sat with a blank expression next to me, and then turned her gaze to me, question in her eyes that I could not answer.
“I see,” I said, worried too but not exactly about her disappearance – more about what she was, not where she was. “I guess there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Actually, I thought about sending her an email,” Isy said, green eyes glinting. “Maybe then... then she’ll respond.”
I had a gist she wouldn’t but didn’t tell so to Isy. “Do it,” I nodded. “It’s better than doing nothing.”
Jez snorted from beside me and I didn’t even spare her a glance. It was almost like I was getting used to her, and the thought flustered me. I shouldn’t be getting, I don’t know, content with her or any other Preston. I wasn’t supposed to like them. I should still be debating which side I would take.
Right now, though, with Echo’s disappearance, I was leaning to the Preston’s side, but it was inevitable. After all, I was kind of forced to be around them all the time, unlike with Echo and her family.
Besides, if they killed first someone innocent... how would I let myself be on their side? It would be like betrayal to humanity. Sure, the Prestons killed, too, but if what they said was true and they killed to avenge their loved ones and to protect their own lives... how could that possible be inhumane?
But what if the Moores also killed to save themselves? An instinct in me whispered that they didn’t, and the thought was a warning. I was starting to like the Prestons.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
Great going, Rae Marie. Great going.
“Hey, are you listening to me, Rae?”
I snapped my head toward Isy who looked at me with confusion. “You were out for a sec,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said, and sighed as the bell went off and Isy returned to her seat next to Marcus, who sent me a dirty glare. I rolled my eyes. Now my best friend’s boyfriend hated me because I was spacing out on his GF. God, I so didn’t need those complications right now. I had enough on my mind as it is.
And now I sounded like I threw a pity party.
“You’d better listen to class, O’Reilly,” Jez hissed. “After all, you were the one who dragged me to school so you could ‘complete your education’.” The mockery in her voice was obvious and I ignored it.
“You know,” I hissed back, not in the mood to shut up, “maybe you should just close that mouth of yours if you have nothing smart or truthful to say. It may make you look less dumb.”
Her eyes widened, sky-blue twinkling with fury. “Don’t you talk to me like that, you bitch,” she snapped hissingly. “You should respect me. I’m twenty, and you’re a seventeen-year-old midge, so shut it.”
“Oh my Gosh,” I said sarcastically, “you’re so old. Can I go to bingo with you?”
Her blazing eyes looked even more furious, and she opened her mouth, probably to snark at me, but then Mr. Wesley said, “Miss Smith, I’d appreciate if your attention was on me instead of Miss O’Reilly.”
Jez nodded at him, as if she was acknowledging his presence or statement, and turned away from me. But her eyes stayed on me long enough so I got the message: this isn’t over.
Even without that narrow-eyed glare I would’ve known that bright and clearly.
Jez didn’t talk to me for the rest of the morning classes, but when we sat at the weirdest table in the cafeteria – the table where Isy, Marcus, Chase and his two friends, Taryn and her two minions, Jez and I were sitting – Jez turned to me and said quietly, to my ears only, “Don’t think you can just mouth off at me and I would be okay with that.”
It was a clear warning that she wouldn’t tolerate me “mouthing off at her”. But I didn’t take warnings well. “I’ll say whatever I want to say,” I said in a low voice back at her. “It’s a free country, after all.”
She pierced me with a glare. “I’ll tell Henry,” she threatened like a little child.
I couldn’t help but laugh out loudly enough, that everyone stopped their conversations and looked confusedly at me. After all, my laugh was all but humorless. “You’ll be all telltale because mean, bad Rae O’Reilly was saying stuff about you? That’s rich, Jezebel.”
She flushed furiously. “Don’t talk to me like that, you fucking bitch!” She yelled, and the whole cafeteria quieted and looked at us, searching for commotion and amusement to pass the lunchtime. Stupid pricks.
“I’m so, so sorry, Jez-Jez, did I say something hurtful?” I pouted, feeling much like Taryn when she was in a bitchy session. The thought wasn’t that good. “Did little Jezzie-Jez got hurt?”
“Oh, Rae-Rae,” she said with flippancy that irritated me. “Do you really want to get there? Are you seriously that desperate for attention?”
“I’m sorry, Jezzie, but I think that would be you,” I said with almost the same contempt. And, apparently, it was Jezebel’s last straw.
She smacked me across the face so hard, my neck had almost snapped. Hair fell on my face from the pure strength of the hit, and tears prickled my eyes from pain. I was sure I had a red sign on my cheek because of her bitch-slap.
“Serves you right, little shit,” she spat and returned to her food, as if she didn’t just hit me in front of the whole school.
But, surprisingly enough, I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry at myself, frustrated even, that I’d let myself get so low. I didn’t like feeling like a bitch, and I didn’t consider myself one. And now, what had happened, was totally out of character for me. Stupidly, I smiled a little, the first real smile I’d smiled ever since the murder, and chuckled painfully. “Serves me right,” I agreed, and had the pleasure to see Jez snapping her head to me, astounded. Without responding, physically or verbally, I just kept on eating, too.
Slowly, the attention was averted from us, and when I glanced toward Jez, I caught a small smile playing at her lips, too.
Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.
Danger was waiting for us at the gate. My stomach flipped with a sudden, shocking disappointment that Gunner wasn’t here instead, and again, I was mad at myself for being such an idiot.
Many girls drooled all over Danger – after all, he was gorgeous in his rough, criminalistic way. With his shaved hair and piercing, cattish-green eyes, he could woo any woman he wanted, not to mention his muscles and all. Even his olive-like skin tone made him look goddamn exotic.
But he was no sex-god. Not like Gunner. Sure, he was plenty sexy, but it wasn’t Gunner-sexy.
For a brief second, his eyes were on Jez as we reached him, and I saw the undeniable emotion there. I still wondered what was his relationship with Jez, beyond their adopted-sibling-like affection. I had a feeling Danger was feeling more for Jez than she for him. After all, her crush on Gunner was well-known. But Danger was hard to read, so maybe I was looking into it totally wrong.
“Hey Jez, redling,” he winked. “How was school?”
“Fine.” Both Jez and I answered, and we exchanged glances for a brief second, both of us smiling slightly, and then looked away when we realized what we were doing. Like little kids, really.
Danger looked amused at the display. “Well then, girls, let’s get going. Tonight we’re going for a dinner outside with Henry and Mad, who came soon after you left for school.”
Jez seemed surprise. “Mad’s here?” She asked, almost warily.
“Yup,” Danger replied. “Maddie’s here.”
Jez grinned. “Don’t call him that in front of him. You know it makes him mad – no pun intended.”
Danger smirked back knowingly. “Oh I know better than to enrage Henry’s heir,” his smirk turned devilish, which made a few girls – and even a teacher or two – fan themselves. “Doesn’t mean I can’t play with him, though.”
Jez laughed. “That’s your funeral – literally.” she said. “Now let’s get going.”
Jez in her car, Danger and I in his silver Honda, we were driving out of the school’s parking lot and to the main rode. “So Jez and you are working your problems out,” Danger said.
I shrugged. “We had a moment, but I don’t think it’ll change anything.” I glanced at him. “So tell me about young Mr. Preston.”
Danger grinned. “You’d better just call him Mad, or Maddox. Mr. Preston and Maddie make him feel like an elder or a pussy, the douche.”
“Well, Maddie is mostly a short for Madison, not Maddox,” I pointed out. “So there’s some legitimacy in that.”
He chuckled. “If you say so, redling.”
I found myself used to him calling me that. Again, I felt like I was falling for the Prestons, and I shouldn’t be. I should be angry at them still for taking me away from Gran, for forcing me to stay with them and all. But truth was, I couldn’t.
Danger and I talked lightly on the way home. He was easy to talk to once you get used to his criminalistic looks, and apparently he liked to talk to me too. He kept on calling me “redling” like it was my official nickname, and was actually interested in what I had to say when asked a question.
Probably he was my now most-favorite Preston. Because Danger, unlike his name, didn’t make me feel endangered or intimidated by him. It was like talking to the big brother I’d never had – especially when he called me this ridiculous nickname.
When we arrived home, we entered the entrance hall. There stood Henry, wearing a business black suit, his gray hair brushed and organized, his matching gray eyes fondly looking at the guy who stood in front of him. The guy had blue-black hair, gray eyes, and tall, big and muscled body. Ten more pounds and he would’ve looked like a wrestler. But except that, he looked pretty good, for a thirty-plus-year-old man. He looked healthy, strong and male. I guess that’s what mattered.
And I knew that this was Maddox Preston, Henry’s son and heir.
Maddox turned to Jez, Danger and I when we entered, cutting his chat with his father. A smile spread on his face and he took Jez’s hand and pulled her into a hug. “Oh, Jez,” he said in a fond way of a father, instead of a fellow brother. “You look so good. When did you get so curvy?”
“M-Mad!” Jez chastised, shocked, and blushed. “Jesus.” She mumbled and unfolded herself from his arms.
“And Danger,” Maddox pulled Danger into that manly-man hug-like, all with shaking hands so strongly both their knuckles turned white and such. “God, I missed you, Dange.” He said affectionately.
“Missed you too, bro,” Danger said back.
Then Maddox looked at me, and his eyes narrowed, all trace of the loving man I’d just seen vanishing, and now a killer’s cold eyes penetrated my own. “And you must be our newest trouble, packed in a little ginger figure,” he scanned me up and down. “You look like one of Cinderella’s mean step-sisters.” His face scrunched with disgust.
Now I was honestly intimidated. This Maddox man was way stronger than Gunner or Danger. He also looked threatening, and it seemed as though he had no boundaries when it came to protecting his own.
Now I was anxious. “Eh, n-nice to meet you,” I mumbled, looking anywhere but at him. “I’m R-Rae.”
“Oh, I know your name,” he said, taking a threatening step toward me, and I fought the urge to step back, away from him. “I’m Maddox Preston, and I can crush you with my fingers if I want to.”
Silence filled the hall as everyone watched this exchange. I knew I was on my own here, and my respect was also here on the line. I needed to be courageous.
So I raised my eyes and looked directly into his cold ones that would’ve given me hypothermia if they could. “I know you won’t hurt me,” I said, knowing that I was right. “It’s not your way, after all. I was explained your purposes, and I appreciate your strength and willingness to fight back. Therefore I know I’m safe from your murderous radar.”
Maddox’s eyes became suddenly wary, a look that was shocking and misplaced on his hardened face. “Say that again,” he said, making me confused.
“Say what again?” I asked, suddenly off the conversation.
“What you said first.” He practically ordered, looking expectant and still wary.
I stilled myself, looking again into his eyes, and said, in my most courageous tone, “I know you won’t hurt me.”
In a flash he was in front of me, his hands grabbing my shoulders. He searched my face, my eyes, almost desperately so, and then closed his eyes and sighed. Harshly.
“What’s the matter, Mad?” Henry asked, and Maddox’s hands tightened on me.
He opened his eyes, looked at me, and cursed. “What did you say was your name?” he asked instead of answering Henry.
Not scared anymore, I folded my arms and glared at him. “I thought you already knew.” I sneered.
His hands almost crushed my bones. “Tell. Me. Your. Name.” He gritted out, his dominance stronger than mine.
Deciding against snarking again, I said, “Rae O’Reilly.”
“Rae Marie O’Reilly,” Henry fixed, like my middle name was important somehow.
And apparently it was. Maddox’s hands let go of my shoulders at once, as if burned, and he cursed again. “Dammit,” he said. “Goddamn dammit.”
“Maddox, what - “
“She’s like her, dad,” Maddox spat. “She’s like her.”
Apparently I wasn’t the only one confused. “Like who, Mad?” Jez asked, curiosity in her voice.
Maddox clenched his hands into fists. “Like Arabella’s sister,” Maddox said again, and that’s when I saw the hurt, the angst, the agony in his eyes.
Henry, Jez and especially Danger, tensed at once.
“Willow.” A voice behind me said, and the tension in hall became almost unbearable.