When I was grabbed from behind and thrown against my locker, I wasn't altogether surprised to see Matt Rettley's smirking expression in my face. Stoutly muscled, striking blue eyes, and nearly blinding blonde curls to match. Matt might've been the high school football quarterback, most girls' dream to squeeze, but to me—he was the aggressor.
And a part of me liked it.
"What?" I asked coolly. He had my hands pushed up against the lockers. Idly, I glanced at them and wondered at the different skin colors. Of course, I didn't have a skin color. I wore black, all black, all over. And his hands were golden tan since summer was just around the corner.
"What do you mean 'what?' You know what," Matt snapped back and pushed closer. "I saw you eyeing me up in the cafeteria today. You don't eat. You don't think I know what that's about. You trying to be all skinny for me? You think it makes me hot?"
One of his hands slid to the back of my neck and filtered through my long black hair before it rested on the curve of my back. He pulled me close, off the lockers, and bent to whisper in the crook of my neck, "You just breathe and I think it's hot. Right, baby? Do I do it for you too?"
I glanced over his shoulder, felt my brother's approach, and whispered seductively, "Maybe if you died."
Matt tensed and then shoved me against the locker again. As my head hit the metal, I saw Kellan rip Matt away to hurl him against the next locker.
It was odd. I never saw Kellan's approach, but I always felt him. Just like he always felt when I needed him.
I watched, casually, as Kellan threw Matt against another locker, snarl something in his ear, and rear back to throw a punch. I felt the crunch of bone more than I heard it and I knew that my brother had just broken another umpteenth jaw.
As a teacher rounded the corner, Matt rushed around the other corner. No one wanted to get the Bradens in trouble.
"Kellan and Shay Braden. Why is it always you two? And if it's not the two of you, it's your other two siblings? All the time." Mr. Mirchak approached, shaking his head. "Who'd you fight this time, Kellan?"
I should've felt something, maybe remorse, but there was nothing. Matt had assaulted me. Kellan felt it and protected me. And if Matt chose to run away, then that was Matt's decision. But still…I should've felt guilty.
Kellan drew to his full height of six one and squared his lithely lean shoulders against the portly forty-something teacher. He shook his head, gracefully, and drawled, "Do you see anyone, Mr. Mirchak?"
The balding teacher shook his head in aggrieved resignation and muttered, "I never see anyone, Kellan. That's the problem. But I know that someone's going to show up with a busted eye, maybe a shoulder. I don't know, but there's always something." He turned away, but mumbled over his shoulder, "…too damn scared to say a thing…"
Kellan waited until the teacher had turned the corner before he flashed a smile, "What do you think?"
I rolled my eyes and kicked my locker open, "You didn't have to break his jaw."
"Right." Kellan fell against the locker beside mine and studied me intently. "At least this way, he'll shut up all the time. I'm getting tired of his smart mouth. The guy thinks he knows you too much. He doesn't know anything."
"Still…" I muttered as I bent inside to grab my book.
"Still," Kellan mimicked me and yanked me out. "Why didn't you do something, Shay?"
"What are you talk—"
"Don't. Not with me," Kellan interrupted, severely. "You could've stopped him long before I came around the corner. You knew I was coming. Why didn't you stop him?"
"Maybe I wanted to hear his rhetoric on how hot I must be for him."
"Don't be funny, Shay. You're not the funny one, remember."
I smirked, "That's funny. I don't think that role's been taken in our family."
Kellan's hand tightened on my arm. He pulled me closer and bent his head to my ear. "You always wait for me. Why?"
Maybe I couldn't bring myself to do what he enjoyed. Maybe I liked knowing he'd always protect me or that someone would protect me. Maybe….maybe I enjoyed the sick pleasure knowing that someone like Matt could never really hurt me, though he didn't know that fact. Or maybe…I whispered, hoarsely, "I don't know, okay?"
And I didn't know. I had ideas. I had possible scenarios, but the only truth was that I could've easily broken Matt's hold on me and that I didn't.
"It's done, I guess. No harm." He caught my swift look and amended, "No harm done…to us."
"That's better." I grinned. I eyed the book in my hand.
"Are you going to class?"
"I dunno." I should. I was the 'good' student in our family, but there was something tempting about the summer wind. Living in Minnesota made it difficult to stay away from the summer lakes. The water always beckoned…
"Vespar just texted me. He and Guiseppe are heading to the river," Kellan commented as a bell rang. The doors burst open and all our classmates streamed into the hallway.
I always forgot the last period was a short period during our last week.
"Decision made," Kellan grunted and grabbed my bag for me. As he threw it over his shoulder and stood upright, I watched as all the students streamed around us. Matt was one of the few that braved an encounter with us. He was the top of his food chain so he felt it was his duty. I understood that, but the truth was that no one would dare stand against Kellan. And if not Kellan, than Vespar was just as formidable.
The Braden siblings were famous in our little community of Poehler, but not really known—by anyone.
When I caught the wolfish looks from some girls on the yearbook committee, I taunted, "Leah still hasn't gotten her clutches in you? I'm surprised, brother dearie. She's been giving you the look since last summer."
Kellan rubbed his jaw, thoughtfully, but his eyes were intent on me. He remarked as he ran a brisk hand over his blonde buzzcut, "She's got nothing new that I want. I've been inside of her too many times. I'm getting tired of it."
My eyebrows arched at that and I whistled, "What happened to 'kiss and never tell'? I didn't think you were the type." But Kellan was the type. He didn't give a damn, not when it was over. He'd spew anything I wanted to hear and he'd only spew it to me.
Kellan shrugged, "Let's go. We've got only a few hours before the sun's gone."
I sighed. I loved the summer. I loved the water. But I also knew what my siblings would do when the sun went down. And I wasn't really up for that. Besides…my fingers were itching to feel the painter's brush between them. And I had a tingle in my back. I always knew to heed that tingle when it came on.
"I'm gonna opt out. I've got things to do," I tried for casual, but Kellan shot me a dark look. I waited, tensely, for him to question my decision. I'd tell him if it came to it, but my time in the painting studio had been my private time up to now…I didn't want him to ask what 'things' I had to do. I wasn't ready to share that with anyone, even my brother who'd broken another jaw for me.
Relieved, I stood there as Kellan raked one more scrutinizing look over me before he turned and left. It was remarkable to watch everyone instinctually move aside for him. And it wasn't because of his rakish good looks. Although that helped. Kellan, Guiseppe, and Vespar were all tall with the blonde goodlooks they inherited from our mother.
Not me. I stood a couple inches below them with black night hair that teased just below my shoulder blades. Guiseppe had a long mane of golden tendrils. They were just wavy enough to give her a whole goddess look. Not my hair. It was straight black, but it seemed to sparkle underneath the right light. Kellan always said that it seemed to lure the guys in.
It seemed to have lured Matt Rettley in, but Kellan was right. I hadn't met a guy that I couldn't handle. It was just if I chose to handle them or not. It drove Kellan crazy. Not Vespar. He just sniffed and marched the other way. Secretly, I wondered if Vespar was a little jealous of my closeness with Kellan. But then again, Vespar and Guiseppe had formed their own clique in our family.
That was us, the Bradens. Gorgeous, mysterious, and a little dysfunctional.
And as I turned to head towards the art studio, I wasn't immune to how the same students moved for me too.
"You've come to grace the studio walls?" My art teacher, Mrs. Ullen, smiled graciously as she swept open the door.
I stepped inside and took in the new paintings that decorated the art room.
"They're nice. Whose are they?" Each painting was done by a student. I recognized a few handiworks. Some were roughly outlined while others were intricately given a detailed swoosh of the hand. The paintings were of animals, sports, and even balloons. I perused each of them as Mrs. Ullen waited in silence. She walked beside me, her arms crossed over her chest, wearing a billowy dress that seemed to dwarf her tiny frame.
And then I paused at the end of the room. A handful of paintings were hung. Each of them were bold, dark, and encased a chilling image of a demon. Each black form had two red eyes that sent chills down my spine. I almost felt the fire that was reflected from the demon's hell. And the very last took my breath away. It was the same demon, but this time a slight slant had been given to the eyes so that it looked…my eyes widened as I realized the implication. I turned sharply and rasped out, "Who did these?"
Mrs. Ullen's smile never faltered, but I caught the slight tensing around her eyes. She swept a hand toward the graying bun her hair was loosely pulled into and she mused, "You don't like them?"
They were beautifully done. It wasn't my issue. I demanded, "Who did these? Who did this one specifically?"
Mrs. Ullen didn't need to look. She knew which one I meant and she sighed her surrender, "These didn't come from a student here, Shay. I hung these two weeks ago. It's been awhile since your last visit here."
I didn't visit. I painted. And I knew there was a reason why Mrs. Ullen wanted me to study the paintings.
"I want you to take the last painting down," I demanded.
"Shay, really. I don't understand…" And then her eyes caught and held on the last painting. I saw the realization before I heard the swift intake of breath.
"That last one looks like Kellan. I want it taken down and I want to know who painted it."
"I'd like to paint, Mrs. Ullen. I'd like for you to keep selling my portraits in your store, but I really don't want that painting hung on that wall. And I really want to know who's the artist."
Mrs. Ullen looked flabbergasted. And no wonder. I usually came into the art room, perused through the pieces she displayed that week, and then I always quietly went into the studio room that was kept locked. Mrs. Ullen had taken note of my talent early in elementary school. She had proclaimed my doodles as masterpieces and then introduced me to a blank painting canvas. The relationship had been cemented that day.
I painted whenever I wanted. And she sold them in her private store.
No one knew except the two of us. It was respected by both, but this was the first time I'd spoken against my collaborator.
"Oh dear, of course. I didn't even notice—but then again, you always see what I cannot. I'm sure the artist didn't intend anything by the painting. It's a total and accidental coincidence. I'm sure of this, Shay. I'm so sure of this. Of course, I'll take the painting down. I know how close you are with your brother."
As she hurriedly moved forward to unhinge the painting, I tried to calm myself. I didn't care if it was accidental or not. Something fierce and angry burned inside of me at the idea of a demonic portrait of Kellan…though it might be true at times.
"There you go, Shay. It's down. I'll keep it behind the desk, covered, until he arrives for his paintings again. I'm so sorry again, Shay honey. I'm sure your brother isn't even…" But her voice trailed off when our eyes met. Everyone knew Kellan's reputation and it wasn't an angelic one.
"Still," she cleared her throat. "I'm sorry again, Shay. Did you come in to paint this evening?"
I nodded, mutely, and still a little shaken from the fierceness I'd felt over the painting.
"I'll unlock the door for you, Shay honey. You know how to leave the school if you stay late. And with that, I'll leave you alone." She hustled out of the room and I heard the click of the studio door unlocking a moment later. When I heard her approach, I quickly moved to the second door and timed it so that I exited the room as she re-entered.
And then I was in the empty hallway, still shaken, but the tingle urged me ahead. It was stronger than it had ever been before and I quickly moved to the studio door. I swished through and breathed in freedom as it locked shut behind me. That was when I turned and surveyed the room.
Three empty canvases were perched on easels.
And I forgot everything else.