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Authors: Carrie Butler

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CHAPTER 2

I slept on my little dilemma.

For a while, at least. Wallace, my twin without sin, called in the middle of the night to deliver an information bomb. Apparently, Faye—our great-aunt who’s hell-bent on taking over the world—had some Nullari chick named Corynn flown in from England. What did this mean for us? Just that we now had a walking, talking nullifier to worry about.

See, there are three types of supernatural races in this world—the Dynari, Augari, and Nullari. The first bloodline, mine, manifests itself in the form of various abilities beyond human limitation. Take Wallace, for example. He’s an empath and probably the strongest guy on earth, but that doesn’t mean shit because he can’t touch his girlfriend Rena. Even the slightest contact leaves her with bruises.

Though, that’s kinda her fault, too…

We recently found out Rena is an Augari, someone who augments our abilities by acting as a supercharger. That’s the main reason Faye wants to keep her around. She’s trying to boost her minions for a potentially hostile takeover. I read about it the other day when I was digging through ERA’s files.

ERA, of course, being Faye’s pet project. Evolution Requires Action—or as I like to think of it, Evil Rich Assholes.

God, my life is complicated.

Anyway, now we have this Corynn girl to contend with. In theory, her Nullari powers cancel out the ability of any Dynari within close proximity, but she’s the first member of her bloodline we’ve encountered. Who knows what she’s capable of?

My theory is Faye brought her here to neutralize Wallace, since she made them do a demonstration hug. It’d be a total divide and conquer tactic. Split up the power couple, cancel out the strong one, and then leave the other to boost war efforts. Not bad, but how the hell would I factor into it? The three of us were prophesized to derail that one-way train to Crazytown. I was in her granddaughter’s batshit vision, too, damn it!

Okay, so maybe I’m jonesin’ for a fight.

My phone chirped, reminding me that Wallace’s festival was starting up in Wilcox. He’d mentioned something about having to work a church stand today, and with all this shit unraveling, I figured I’d better go keep an eye on things. I had some of that stolen reading material to pass off, anyway. It’d be a good excuse. So, off I went, ready to compartmentalize.

A couple of hours later, I locked my jeep behind an old chapel-looking building that gave me the creeps. With the mid-day sun pouring straight down, it glowed, casting just enough shadow to cover me.
Fitting.
I took the opportunity to take a quick inventory of my surroundings.

Bounce house, games, sugar munchkins running in circles—maybe Wallace’s church was trying to demonstrate the threat of hell.
And if that’s the case, I’d better get comfortable.
I made my way through the crowd.

Rena was easy enough to spot, but she didn’t notice me until I got within a few yards of her table. Blonde strands blew back from her face, revealing a bored expression that suddenly tightened with suspicion. Please. It wasn’t like I’d come to fake-kidnap her. Again.

“Yo, sis!” I lifted my arm, shouting the nickname I’d given her as loudly as possible. Hopefully Wallace was around. It always drove him nuts. “Have you…”

The breeze shifted, causing something red to flit in my peripheral vision. I let my gaze follow its movements to the girl beside Rena, the one who’d been blocked by some twerp getting his face painted just moments before, and my breath caught in my throat.

Where the hell did she come from?

Let me backtrack. Every guy has a type, a vague notion that any number of chicks can fit into. Tall, small, busty, pancaked—whatever. At the same time, he also forms a model of the ideal woman in the back of his mind; a pubescent fantasy he knows will never pan out, but can’t help revisiting. Again and again. Usually with his hand…

I shook my head. Anyway, if I wasn’t tripping out right now…this girl was somehow mine. Shiny, reddish-brown hair, big hazel eyes, and skin like a porcelain doll. Her long legs crossed under the table, and I couldn’t help picturing them locked around my neck. Too bad the rest of her body was hidden beneath that flimsy, two-sizes-too-big dress. “Hey there.”

“Hi.” She gave me a coy little smile and looked up through her lashes.

Rena ping-ponged her gaze between us and narrowed her eyes. “What do you want, Cole?”

“Why don’t you introduce me to your friend first?” I grinned and tried to use my charming voice, but I was two seconds from shaking her. If she blew this for me, I’d lose my shit.

“Cole, this is Rachel.” She gestured toward the girl. “Rachel, this is Wallace’s brother Cole.”


Enchanté
,” I told her, busting out the big guns as I kissed the back of her hand.

It must’ve worked, because she giggled. A legit, schoolgirl giggle. My grin widened.

I could picture myself giving this girl two to five of the best weeks of my life—no more, because six suggests commitment, but still. We could have a lot of fun in that time.
A lot.

Of course, Sis chose that moment to jerk me off to the side. “Easy, Loverboy. You’re looking for Wallace, right? He’s inside.”

Subtle, you little cockblock…

“Fine,” I acknowledged her unspoken warning and shrugged her hand off. “Sorry, Rach. I have to go find my knucklehead brother. Maybe I’ll catch you later? I wouldn’t mind getting painted…”

All over my body.

“I’d be happy to.” She beamed at me, fidgeting with her hands.

Nervous, maybe. Dare I say interested?
I held her gaze a second more, my lips curling back. “Until then.”

Rena rolled her eyes and turned to Rachel. “I better take him, so he doesn’t get lost. I’ll be right back.”

Rachel nodded as a blush spread to her ears. “Sure.”

And with that, I was grabbed and manhandled all the way to the church. My little almost-sis had gotten her feathers ruffled, and I was about to hear about it. Once we made it inside, she turned on me. “Have you lost your damn mind?”

I twisted away from her. “What?”

“Not here.” She widened her eyes and pointed to the carpet like it meant something. “You cannot mess with people
here
, Cole. This is a church festival.”

“I’m not the one cursing and jerking people around,” I hissed, trying to keep my voice low. “Besides, she was hot.”

“I don’t care. She’s off limits.”

“Why?”

She chewed her lip, struggling with the answer. “Just stay away from her.”

“What if I don’t?”

“I’ll harvest your organs.”

I smirked and leaned back. “Oh, I’ve got an organ you can harvest.”

She slapped her hands over her ears. “Gross!”

“What’s gross?” Wallace’s voice echoed around the vacant foyer as he carried a tray of meat from the kitchen.
Shit.
“Cole, what’re you doing here?”

“Getting abused.” I rubbed my arm and glared at his girlfriend, ready to pass the blame. “I brought the papers.”

Rena uncovered her ears and blinked. “What papers?”

I raised my eyebrows. “You still haven’t told her?”

“Told me what?” she asked, looking between us.

Dead man.

Wallace set the tray down and took a step toward her. “I wanted to tell you. I just thought we should wait until we had a little more evidence. There was no use stressing you out over nothing.”

“What’s nothing?”

I waved her off and dug around in my pockets. “ERA’s done with the virus, we still have no idea what it’s for, and it’ll probably kill everyone. So, why can’t I date this girl?”

Her eye twitched, and she drew a slow breath through her nose. “You’re telling me Faye wasn’t bluffing?”

Wallace wedged himself between us. “Wait a sec. Bluffing about what?”

“I was coming to tell you yesterday,” she explained. “But then the whole Nullari thing happened.”

And then she went on to tell a story that would’ve been more helpful—I don’t know—yesterday. Apparently, Faye had been a guest speaker during one of her classes and scared the shit out of everyone by rambling on about viruses and vaccines. This was all before she made Rena witness Wallace and Corynn’s epic embrace. The pieces were coming together.

“Why?” Wallace turned around, snatched the freshly retrieved papers from my hands, and flattened them. “What could they possibly gain from this? And why would they want you to join ERA now?”

“Another funny thing,” I interrupted, swiping my thumb across my tongue to flip to the last few pages. “They’re making a roster, based on the information they took from Edwin. Dynari, Nullari…” I leaned forward to meet Rena’s eyes. “Augari.”

She stumbled back. “My family.”

“Uh huh.” I nodded and paced the perimeter of the room, giving my building energy a proper outlet. “And it doesn’t end there. They’re doing their homework. Locations, relationships, abilities. We’re talking a database full of profiles from all around the world. It’ll take some time, though.”

She grabbed a fistful of Wallace’s shirt. “We can’t let them find my parents. Or Drew. Anyone…”

“I know, baby.” Wallace opened his arms to her and pressed his face against her hair. “We’ll get through this. We just have to—”

The doors banged open, and some random chick barged through with a grin. “There you are! I’ve been looking all over the place for you two. Feels weird wandering around a festival not knowing anyone, ya know?”

Scratch that. English accent. Not random.

Rena stiffened. “What’re you doing here?”

“Is this not a public thing?” Our new arrival reached into her back pocket and produced a wrinkled flyer. “Faye suggested I get better acquainted with the community during my free time, so she gave me the info. Said you two might be here to show me around.”

Suspicion confirmed. I cocked my head to the side. “Then, you’re the…” I took a step toward her and froze. The world warped and sped up. My heartbeat, their movements, the sound of a ticking clock. I took another step. This time, I looked back at Rena. “Huh.”

“What?” Wallace asked, impatient as ever.

“It’s like time speeds up around her,” I mused. “I’m slower. It’s creepy.”

“Well, excuse me.” Corynn made a face. “You’re not the friendliest lot, are you?”

Wallace stepped out of Rena’s embrace and walked over to her. “Sorry, we’re just a little weirded out by the whole thing. It’ll take some adjusting to, you know?”

She shrugged. “I s’pose so. Who’s this, then? Your brother?”

No, I’m his stunt double.

“Yeah, this is Cole,” Wallace told her. “Cole, this is Corynn Catley.”

I slipped behind Sis, a safe distance away, and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same.” Corynn eyed the three of us, scratched her head, and then turned her attention back to Wallace. “Hey, um, could I talk to you for a moment?” She coughed and added in a quiet voice, “In private?”

Oh shit.

Wallace blinked. “Sure, uh…” He looked back to us, puzzled, and shrugged his shoulders. “Do you guys mind?”

Was that a hint to run interference?

“Tch. Like we care.” I stepped around Rena and bent down. “C’mon, Sis. I’ll give you a piggyback ride.”

She stared ahead, vacant, her mind locked on something I’d obviously missed.

“Rena.” I clicked my tongue to catch her attention and smacked my back. “Seriously, hop on.”

She turned to me, blinking as she finally registered the request. “What? No way.”

“It’ll be fun,” I assured her.
Or not. Let’s just get the hell out of here.

Wallace just stood there, lost in thought. He didn’t even yell at me for propositioning his girlfriend.

I smacked my back one last time and Rena finally complied, climbing on. I straightened and grabbed under her legs. “Hold on ti—”

“So help me, Cole, if you say spider monkey…”

“What the hell is a spider monkey?”

“Never mind.” She put her arms around my neck and sighed, pressing against me.

I took it as my cue to blur on out of there.

CHAPTER 3

“Woo!” I ran through the festival at top speed, distracting Rena with the one thing I knew could trump any worry—panic. “Bet you’ve never gone this fast before.”

“Cole,” she warned, burying her face in the crook of my neck. Her grip tightened as I jumped a picnic table, and her arms started to shake. It seemed pretty routine to me, but it must’ve been terrifying on her end.

So, I stopped.

My not-so-human backpack rammed into me. “Ugh!”

“Ready for round two?” I grinned.

She half-climbed, half-slid down my back, stiff as a mannequin. “Shut up.”

I turned to face her, trying to contain my laughter. “It was fun, right? You can tell me. I mean, you did make me faster.”

“Never. Again.” She glared at me and tried, in vain, to pat down her frizzy blonde mane.

I laughed and picked a leaf out of her hair. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“It was dangerous.”

I quirked an eyebrow. “For
me
, maybe. You didn’t have someone choking you.”

“I was scared! And you almost ran over Pastor Mark.”

I shoved my hands into my pockets, lifted my shoulders, and made for the church. “Yeah, but at least you weren’t worrying about that chick showing Wallace her English muffin.”

Boom.

She blinked and tried to catch up to me. “Okay, one, that was gross. Two, are you saying that ride of terror was to distract me?”

“Maybe.”
Conversational segue in three, two, one…
“So, I’m thinking this deserves a little leeway with the whole ‘don’t touch the redhead’ thing,” I said, casually pointing to the face-paint table as we walked behind it.

Rena ignored me.

Considering her boyfriend was having a private chat with the chick who’d been his first hug—as lame as that sounded—I gave her a pass.

We walked alongside the church in silence. When we reached the corner bushes, I waved her back, holding a finger to my lips. If the field trip didn’t make her feel better about the situation, maybe scaring the shit out of those two would.

Wallace’s voice drifted from the front steps. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, but…”

“Just tell her how you feel,” Corynn urged him. “Make it easier on all of us.”

There was a long pause before Wallace replied in a low tone, “I will. Soon.”

What the hell?

“Just don’t put it off too long,” she said. “That would be cruel, you know? You don’t want to hurt her.” A few seconds passed before she added, “Aww, come on, love. Don’t make that face. Come here.”

Come here? What fuckery is this?

Wallace’s answer came in the form of a muffled rumble. “You’ll never know what being able to do this—to touch someone without worrying—means to me.”

Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.
I turned back to Sis, praying she hadn’t heard any of it, and grimaced.

Her eyes had gone wide and glossy, summoning a surge of memories I’d tried to put a lock on. The way she’d struggled against the cuffs I’d put her in at the warehouse, the way I’d stolen her kiss before my brother could taste her. That first part had been to save Grandma, but the second…the second had just been to screw with him. I never thought they’d actually get together. He’d never gotten serious with anyone. That damn strength of his. I just wanted to get his atten—

Rena bolted.

Shit.

I could catch her, no sweat, but I knew she had to put some distance between herself and what had just gone down—whatever it’d been. After everything that had happened between us, I knew I owed her that much. More, really. But she was family now. I couldn’t just leave her alone.

Damn it, Wallace! What the hell did you just do?

I toed a starting line into the dirt, held my breath and counted to sixty, then met her in the parking lot.

She stumbled to the ground a second before I reached her.

“Sis, I swear. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was just being a dick. I figured we’d scare them. I never thought—”

She held up a hand and struggled to catch her breath. “It’s fine, Cole.”

“Fine?” I asked, crumpling my brow. Her voice had gone flat. This wasn’t the girl I knew and bugged. Where was the fire? The fight? “You should be yelling at Wallace and ripping that bitch’s hair out. Not running like some…”

She looked up through a film of tears, and I froze. “I said it was
fine
. I just need a second.”

Shit.
I took a step back, getting my own dose of panic for the day. This level of comfort was above my pay grade. She didn’t need me; she needed a moment to save face. “All right, but I won’t be far.”

And I meant it.

My Jeep was six spaces down the lot behind her. I sat on the hood and waited. For what, I didn’t know.
Should I call Grandma? She’d know how to defuse this situation.
Then again, she probably already felt it. Her empath abilities were stronger than Wallace’s and more varied. She would definitely hone in on strong emotions like this from someone she loves.

Though, with that line of thinking, Wallace should turn up any second now. Not only does he have the minor gift of empathy, he and Rena are connected by the Mark of Nexus—a supernatural bond said to symbolize the rarest and most powerful of alliances.

It’s fairytale romance shit I don’t like to dwell on, because it’s hard on my gag reflex, but basically, their souls are linked. They share dreams and nightmares. She pulls his abilities. Blah, blah, blah.

Speak of the devil…

Wallace jogged down the hill and slowed to a trot on the pavement, not even noticing me behind him. His attention stayed fixed on Rena, though her back was to both of us—rocking back and forth. My fist tightened.

She turned around, no doubt having sensed his arrival. The scary thing was, she didn’t even try to hide the tears anymore. A confrontation was about to go down, and I was stuck in the audience.

Wallace had that doofy puppy look on as he approached her, oblivious as all hell.

She wrapped her arms around her stomach and looked away before saying something.

Phantom, twin-driven pain clenched my heart, but I ignored it. The dumb shit deserved a confrontation. I’d only cheated on two girls in my life, and both times they were disposables—ones I’d felt relieved when they found out. Rena Collins was on a whole other level.

“We talked about this!” I heard him yell.

Shit. This is getting personal.

I got off the Jeep and forced myself to give them some distance. They needed this fight—
Rena
needed this fight. Once everything was out in the open, they could figure out a way to get through it. Then things would go back to normal.

That is, after I had a chat with my brother about his little lapse in judgment.

~

Something had gone terribly wrong.

I took a few laps around the festival before returning to the parking lot, only to find poor Sis bawling and heaving her guts out on the pavement. Whatever Wallace had done, whatever he’d said to her, had sent her over the edge…and seriously pissed me off.

It didn’t take long to find him, stumbling toward the church in some kind of fallout stupor. I didn’t bother with words. Instead, I doled out my brotherly love via the direct approach. “You son of a bitch!”

His head snapped to the side from the force of a hook he never saw coming. “What the…?”

“What did you do to her?” I demanded, pointing at the mess he’d left in the parking lot. “Tell me I did not just see Rena throw up over what you said earlier. So help me—”

“What the hell are you talking about?” he snapped back, on the defensive. “She just broke up with me. I didn’t say anything.”

I got close, right up in his face. If he was screwing with me, it was a bad idea. “You serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” He shoved me. “You think I’d joke about something like that? She wanted out, so I let her. End of story.”

“Right.” I caught my footing and circled him. “She wanted out. Had nothing to do with you.”

He sucked in a deep breath. “You better stop right there.”

“What are you going to do about it?” I taunted, shoving him back. The old Wallace Blake was about to make an appearance. Maybe it was time his thumper friends caught a glimpse. “Come on. Show me.”

“Cole, back off.”

I spit at his feet. “Make me.”

He threw his shoulder into the tackle, a sluggish, but welcome reaction. Now I’d be fully justified in kicking his candy ass.

The second my back hit the ground, I started wailing on him—the side of his face, his neck, his ear. I knew that one would hurt like a bitch.

He clutched at what must’ve sounded like an ocean’s worth of blood pounding his skull and growled, “What’s your problem?”

Even though I saw it coming, I was too pinned to avoid the backlash from his palm-heel to my mouth and nose. Metallic heat flowed crimson. Sounds dampened. Scenery blurred.

I jerked beneath him, unable to budge his supernaturally dense frame until I grazed his boys with my leg. A hunch was all I needed to get a shot from my forearm to his throat. Then a strike at his eye. My heart pounded in my ears.

He roared and snatched at my collar, jerking me up with him. I felt, more than saw, his muscles tighten up, poised for the blow, but nothing came. That’s when I noticed the hand on his shoulder. Must’ve been too far gone…

“Wallace!” the man scolded, his brows arched in incredulity. “That’s enough.”

Isn’t that the pastor I almost mowed down earlier?

My brother deflated at the interference, allowing us to get pulled apart and sent to opposite sides of the light post like children.

“What the heck’s gotten into you?” Pastor What’s-his-face asked. “Who is this guy?”

I spit crimson on the sidewalk and shot Wallace a glare. “Sorry, preacher. Family disagreement.”

“He’s my brother,” Wallace explained, raising his voice over mine as he fought to catch his breath. “We just had a little misunderstanding.”

“Little?” The pastor did a double take and pointed to the crowd forming behind us. “You’re the main event.”

My brother looked down at his shoes. “Sorry.”

“Hey.” He grasped his arm. “If you two are willing, we can talk this thing out inside.”

“I’m not going in there,” I interrupted, eyeing the place. Churches gave me the creeps. Painted windows, chanting, whatever they did in there…

Wallace snapped his chin up and gestured toward the building. “You were
just
in there twenty minutes ago.”

“Not inside-inside,” I fired back. “Just the lobby. You know churches freak me out.”

He reached up and rubbed his temples, ignoring me. “Sorry, Mark. I guess that’s not the best idea right now.”

“That’s fine.” The older man flipped his sunglasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “Why don’t you go ahead and head out, then? I can find someone to cover your and Rena’s shift. Family comes first.”

Wallace cringed. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” He started to walk away and paused. “Oh, and Wallace.”

“Huh?”

Creases formed at the corners of his eyes as he grinned. “I’ll be praying for ya.” He turned to me and added, “You too.”

I snorted as he made his way back to the crowd. “Better get some kneepads.”

“So, are you done?” Wallace asked, feeling along the swollen side of his face.

I shrugged. “For now.”

“And?”

“And what?”

He took a deep breath. “You want to tell me what all that was about?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Gee, I don’t know. Maybe you telling that Nullari chick you were going to break up with Rena, when she was in freakin’ earshot?”

Confusion turned to nausea as he focused on me. “What?”

“I’m going to tell Rena how I feel,” I mocked in the lower range of my voice, imitating him. “Dragging it out would be cruel. Oh, sappity-sap. I love hugs.” My nostrils flared. “Yeah, we came back around that time, asshole. You were too wrapped up to notice.”

“But…” He groped for the light post and struggled for breath. “I wasn’t talking about breaking up with her. Corynn was trying to get me to have a talk with Rena before things got too serious. To make sure she was really in it, before I…before I…”

He ripped his hand back from where he’d crunched the metal. “Damn it.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter now,” he spat, making for his truck. “I need to get out of here. I can’t think straight.”

“Whoa, whoa.” I darted in front of him. “If that’s not how it happened, you have to tell her.”

He shook his head. “If I talk to her now, she’ll think you told me and I made something up to smooth things over. We’ve been having this fight for days, Cole—months, really. Let her believe what she wants to.”

“So, what? You’re just going to let her go?”

“Rena fights for everything,” he gritted out. “If she really wanted me, you think she would’ve just rolled over like that? Maybe she’d been waiting for an excuse, and I finally gave her one.”

I didn’t have an argument for that. I opened and shut my mouth a few times, before stepping aside. “I don’t know,” I finally said. “But this doesn’t feel right. I don’t like it.”

“Yeah? Well, welcome to the club.” He stormed the rest of the way to his truck with me hot on his heels. “And take her home, will ya? I don’t want her walking back to campus by herself.”

He jerked the door open and nearly pulled it off its hinges.

“You got it,” I said, tugging keys from my pocket. “Just relax, okay? We’ll figure this out.”

He grunted, cranked the engine, and threw his truck into gear. “Right.” And with that, he tore out of the lot without looking back.

BOOK: Honesty (Mark of Nexus)
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