Touch ONLY
$5.99

A Denazen novel by Jus Accardo

When a strange boy tumbles down a river embankment and lands at her feet, seventeen-year-old adrenaline junkie Deznee Cross snatches the opportunity to piss off her father by bringing the mysterious hottie with ice blue eyes home.

Except there’s something off with Kale. He wears her shoes in the shower, is overly fascinated with things like DVDs and vases, and acts like she’ll turn to dust if he touches her. It’s not until Dez’s father shows up, wielding a gun and knowing more about Kale than he should, that Dez realizes there’s more to this boy—and her father’s “law firm”—than she realized.

Kale has been a prisoner of Denazen Corporation—an organization devoted to collecting “special” kids known as Sixes and using them as weapons—his entire life. And, oh yeah, his touch? It kills. The two team up with a group of rogue Sixes hellbent on taking down Denazen before they’re caught and her father discovers the biggest secret of all. A secret Dez has spent her life keeping safe.

A secret Kale will kill to protect.

 

Information:

Title: Touch
Series: Denazen, #1
Author: Jus Accardo
Genre: Young Adult, YA Sci-Fi, Teen, YA Fantasy – Paranormal
Length: 326 pages
Launch Date: June 2012
ePub ISBN: 978-1-62061-014-5
Print ISBN: 978-1-62061-013-8
Imprint: Teen
 
 
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
 

Ebook & Paperback
Paperback

 
 
 

Praise for TOUCH

★★★★½ stars, RT Top Pick. “Accardo’s debut, first in the Denazen series, is infused with pulse-pounding action, attitude, charm, romance, suspense and enough witty dialogue to crown it one of the best YA novels of the year.”
– Diane Morasco, RT Book Reviews

“Memorable characters, heart pounding action, sizzling hot romance–TOUCH has it all! Definitely fresh and new. You need to read this book like yesterday.”
– Jennifer L. Armentrout, author of HALF-BLOOD and OBSIDIAN

“Raw and emotional; just like its heroine, TOUCH packs a mean right hook. Jus Accardo’s action-packed debut is sure to win her a legion of fans.”
– Inara Scott, award-winning author of THE CANDIDATES and THE MARKED

 
 
 

An Excerpt from:

Touch
by Jus Accardo

Copyright © 2012 by Jus Accardo. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.

1

 

I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there, waiting at the bottom. Bloodthirsty little shits—they were probably praying for this to go badly. “What do you think—about a fifteen-foot drop?”

“Easily,” Brandt said. He grabbed my arm as a blast of wind whipped around us. Once I was steady on my skateboard, he tipped back his beer and downed what was left.

Together, we peered over the edge of the barn roof. The party was in full swing below us. Fifteen of our closest—and craziest—friends.

Brandt sighed. “Can you really do this?”

I handed him my own empty bottle. “They don’t call me Queen of Crazy Shit for nothing.” Gilman was poised on his skateboard to my left. Even in the dark, I could see the moonlight glisten off the sweat beading his brow. Pansy. “You ready?”

He swallowed and nodded.

Brandt laughed and tossed the bottles toward the woods. There were several seconds of silence, then a muted crash, followed by hoots and hysterical laughter from our friends below. Only drunk people would find shattering bottles an epic source of amusement.

“I dunno about this, Dez,” he said. “You can’t see anything down there. How do you know where you’re gonna land?”

“It’ll be fine. I’ve done this, like, a million times.”

Brandt’s words were clipped. “Into a pool. From a ten-foot-high garage roof. This is at least fifteen feet. Last thing I want to do is drag your ass all the way home.”

I ignored him—the usual response to my cousin’s chiding—and bent my knees. Turning back to Gilman, I smiled. “Ready, Mr. Badass?”

Someone below turned up one of the car stereos. A thumping techno beat drifted up. Hands on the sill behind me, drunken shouts of encouragement rising from below, I let go.

Hair lashed like a thousand tiny whips all along my face. The rough and rumbling texture of the barn roof beneath my board. Then nothing.

Flying. It was like flying.

For a few blissful moments, I was weightless. A feather suspended in midair right before it fluttered gracefully to the ground. Adrenalin surged through my system, driving my buzz higher.

The crappy thing about adrenalin highs, though? They never last long enough.

Mine lasted what felt like five seconds—the time it took to go from the barn roof to the not-so-cushy pile of hay below.

I landed with a jar—nothing serious—a bruised tailbone and some black and blues, maybe. Hardly the worst I’d ever walked away with. Stretching out the kink in my back, I brushed the hay from my jeans. A quick inspection revealed a smudge above my right knee and a few splotches of mud up the left side. All things the washing machine could fix.

Somewhere behind me, a loud wail filled the air. Gilman.

Never mix tequila and peach schnapps with warm Bud Light. It makes you do stupid things. Things like staying too long at a party you were told not to go to or making out in the bushes with someone like Mark Geller.

Things like skateboarding off the roof of a rickety barn…

Well, that’s not entirely true. I tended to do these things without the buzz. Except kissing Mark Geller. That was all alcohol.

“You okay?” Brandt called from the rooftop.

I gave him a thumbs-up and went to check on Gilman. He was surrounded by a gaggle of girls, which made me wonder if he wasn’t faking it—at least a little. A scrawny guy like Gilman didn’t warrant much in the way of female attention, so I’d bet all ten toes he’d run his mouth tonight to attract some.

“You are one crazy ass, Chica,” he mumbled, climbing to his feet.

I pointed to the pile of hay I’d landed in—several yards farther than where he’d crashed. “I’m crazy? At least I aimed for the hay.”

“Wooooo!” came Brandt’s distinctive cry. A moment later, he was running around the side of the barn, fist pumping. He stopped at my side and stuck his tongue out at Gilman, who smiled and flipped him off. He punched me in the arm. “That’s my girl!”

“A girl who needs to bail. Ten minutes of kissy face in the bushes and Mark Geller thinks we’re soul mates. So don’t need a stalker.”

Brandt frowned. “But the party’s just getting started. You don’t want to miss the Jell-O shots!”

Jell-O shots? Those were my favorite. Maybe it was worth… no. “I’m willing to risk it.”

“Fine, then I’ll walk with ya.”

“No way,” I told him. “You’re waiting for Her Hotness to show, remember?” He’d been trying to hook up with Cara Finley for two weeks now. She’d finally agreed to meet him at the party tonight, and I wasn’t ruining his chances by having him bail to play guard dog.

He glanced over his shoulder. In the field under the moonlight, people were beginning to dance. “You sure you’re okay to go alone?”

“Of course.” I gestured to my feet. “No license needed to drive these babies.”

He was hesitant, but in the end, Cara won out. We said good-bye, and I started into the dark.

Home was only a few minutes away—through the field, across a narrow stream, and over a small hill. I knew these woods so well, I could find home with my eyes closed. In fact, I practically had on more than one occasion.

Pulling my cell from my back pocket, I groaned. One a.m. If luck was with me, I’d have enough time to stumble home and tuck myself in before Dad got there. I hadn’t meant to stay so late this time. Or drink so much. I’d only agreed to go as moral support for Brandt, but when Gilman started running his mouth… Well, I’d had no choice but stay and put up so he’d shut up. I had a rep to worry about, after all.

By the time I hit the halfway point between the field and the house—a shallow, muddy stream I used to play in as a child—I had to stop for a minute. Thumping beats and distant laughter echoed from the party, and for a moment I regretted not taking Brandt up on his offer to walk home with me. Apparently, that last beer had been a mistake.

I stumbled to the water’s edge and forced the humid air in and out of my lungs. Locking my jaw and holding my breath, I mentally repeated, I will not throw up.

After a few minutes, the nausea passed. Thank God. No way did I want to walk home smelling like puke. I shuffled back from the water, ready to make my way home, when I heard a commotion and froze.

Crap. The music had been too loud and someone must have called the cops. Perfect. Another middle-of-the-night call from the local PD wasn’t something Dad would be happy about. On second thought, bring on the cops. The look on his face would be so worth the aggravation.

I held my breath and listened. Not sounds coming from the party—men yelling.

Heavy footsteps stomping and thrashing through the brush.

The yelling came again—this time closer.

I crammed the cell back into my pocket, about to begin what was sure to be a messy climb up the embankment, when movement in the brush behind me caught my attention. I whirled in time to see someone stumble down the hill and land a few feet from the stream.

“Jesus!” I jumped back and tripped over an exposed root, landing on my butt in the mud. The guy didn’t move as I fumbled upright and took several wobbly steps forward. He’d landed at an odd angle, feet bare and covered in several nasty looking slices. I squinted in the dark and saw he was bleeding through his thin white T-shirt in several places as well as from a small gash on the side of his head. The guy looked like he’d gone ten rounds with a weed whacker.

Somewhere between eighteen and nineteen, he didn’t look familiar. No way he went to my high school. I knew pretty much everyone. He couldn’t have been at the party—he was cute. I would have remembered. I doubted he was even local. His hair was too long, and he was missing the signature Parkview T-shirt tan. Plus, even in the dark it was easy to make out well-defined arms and broad shoulders. This guy obviously hit the gym—something the local boys could’ve used.

I bent down to check the gash on the side of his head, but he jerked away and staggered to his feet as the yelling came again.

“Your shoes!” he growled, pointing to my feet. His voice was deep and sent tiny shivers dancing up and down my spine. “Give me your shoes!”

Buzzed or not, I was still pretty sharp. Whoever those guys yelling in the woods were, they were after him. Drug deal gone south? Maybe he’d gotten caught playing naked footsie with someone else’s girlfriend?

“Why—?”

“Now!” he hissed.

I wouldn’t have even considered giving up my favorite pair of red Vans if he hadn’t looked so seriously freaked. He was being chased. He thought having my shoes would somehow help? Fine. Maybe as a weapon? Rocks would have worked better in my opinion, but to each his own.

Against my better judgment, I took several steps back and, without turning away from him, pulled them off. Stepping up, I tossed him the sneakers—and teetered forward. Instead of trying to catch me, he took a wide step back, allowing me to fall into the mud.

My frickin’ hero!

I struggled upright and flicked a glob of mud from my jeans as he bent down to snatch the shoes—without moving his gaze from mine. His eyes were beautiful—ice blue and intense—and I found it hard to look away. He set the sneakers on the ground and poised his right foot over the first one. A giggle rose in my throat. No way he’d be jamming his bigass feet into them.

He proved me wrong. Cramming his toes in, heels poking obscenely over the edges, he wobbled with an odd sort of grace to the embankment and wedged himself between a partially uprooted tree and a hollowed-out log. He teetered slightly as he walked, and I remembered the nasty gash on his foot. Great. Now on top of borrowing my kicks, he was going to bleed all over them.

My gaze dropped to the spot he’d been standing. It was dark and the moon had tucked itself behind the clouds so I couldn’t see very well, but something about the ground didn’t look quite right. The color seemed off—darker than it should be.

I squinted, bending to brush my fingers along the dark spot, but more rustling in the woods had my gaze swinging hard left, heartbeat kicking into high gear. The next thing I knew, a group of four men exploded from the brush and came storming down the embankment like ravers on crack. Dressed in dark blue, skintight body suits that covered them from fingertips to toes, little was left to the imagination. Mimes. They reminded me of mimes.

Mimes with what looked a lot like Tasers.

“You!” The one in the front called out as he skidded to a stop. Looking at the ground, he surveyed the trail leading to the shallow water. “Has anyone been past here?”

From the corner of my eye I saw the boy, face pale, watching us. All the men would have had to do was turn to the right and they’d surely see him.

“Some punk came barreling through a few minutes ago.” I stomped my sock-clad foot. Mud sloshed through the material and oozed between my toes. Ick! “Stole my damn shoes!”

“Which way did he go?”

Was he serious? I was about to make a joke about not being allowed to talk to strangers, but the look on his face made me think twice. Mr. Mime didn’t seem like he was rocking a sense of humor. I threw my hands up in surrender and pointed in the direction opposite the one I planned on going.

Without another word, the men split into two groups. Half of them heading the way I’d directed, the other half taking off opposite. Huh. Guess they didn’t trust a semi-drunk chick with a nose ring and no shoes.

I waited till they were out of sight before making my way over to where the boy crouched, still hidden behind the brush. “They’re gone. I think it’s safe to come out and play now.”

He held my gaze and maneuvered out of the hiding spot. When he made no move to remove my sneakers, I nodded to his feet. “Planning to give my kicks back anytime soon?”

He shook his head and folded his arms. “I can’t give them back to you.”

“Why the hell not? Because seriously, dude, red is not your color.”

He looked at the ground for a moment, then let his gaze wander over the path he’d traveled earlier. “I’m hungry.” He was staring again. “Do you have any food?”

He gets my shoes then asks for food? The guy had some serious nerve.

The gash on his head still oozed a little and the faint bluish-purple of a bruise was beginning to surface across his left cheek, but it was the haunted look in his eyes that stood out above everything else like a flashing neon sign. He kept flicking his fingers, one at a time. Pointer, middle, ring, and pinky—over and over.

An owl hooted and I remembered the time. Dad would be home soon. This might work to my advantage. I knew bringing the guy home would royally piss him off. He’d have puppies if he found a stranger in the house. Hell, he might even have a llama.

But while the thought of pushing Dad closer to the edge gave me warm tingles, it wasn’t my only motivation. I kind of wanted a little more time with the guy. Those arms… Those eyes. We were all alone out in the middle of the woods. If he’d wanted to go serial killer on me, he would have made a move by now. I didn’t believe he was dangerous. “My house isn’t far from here—Dad went to the grocery store the other day. Lots of junk food if that’s your thing.”

The look in his eyes made me think he didn’t trust me—which I didn’t get. I’d given him my shoes for crap’s sake. “I don’t know who your friends were, but they might double back. You’ll be safe at my place for a while. Maybe they’ll give up.”

He looked downstream and shook his head. “They are not the type of men who give up.”

 

 

 

2

 

It was a straight path through the woods and across to Kinder Street. The small cul-de-sac bordered the Parkview Nature Preserve and was home to five houses, all painfully similar except for their color. As we walked, I tried to get the guy to talk a few times, but all I got were simple, one-word answers that told me jack-shit. Eventually, I gave up and settled on counting the heavy fall of my shoes—still on his feet—as they clomped against the earth.

By the time the house came into view, I was dying of curiosity.

“So, ready to fill me in yet? Who were those guys in the fruity leotards?” I fought with the front door lock. Damn thing always stuck. “Did you piss off a herd of male ballet dancers?”

Silence.

The door finally gave way and I stepped aside, waving him in. He didn’t move. “Well?”

“You first.”

Alrighty then. Someone had a serious case of paranoia. I stepped in and waited. It took a few moments, but finally, he crossed the threshold.

“Can you at least tell me your name?”

He wandered the room, running his fingertips along the edge of the couch and over some of Mom’s old knickknacks. “Sue calls me Kale,” he mumbled after a minute of hesitation. He picked up a small crystal horse, held it to his ear, then shook it several times before setting it back down and continuing on.

“Kale what?”

The question halted his inspection and earned me a funny look. In his hand was the tile ashtray Mom made at an arts and crafts fair the week before I was born. It was cheesy and cheap looking, but I was still afraid he might drop it.

“As in your last name?”

“I don’t need one,” he said, and returned to his surveillance. It was like he was searching for something. Picking apart each item in the room as if it might contain the clues to a mass murder—or maybe he was looking for a breath mint.

“How very Hollywood of you.” I hefted the laundry basket off the floor, set it on the couch, and rummaged through it till I found a pair of Dad’s sweatpants and an old T-shirt. “Here. The bathroom is upstairs—second door on the right. There should be clean towels in the closet on the first shelf if you want a shower. Take your time.” Please take your time.

This would be the perfect payback for the ass-chewing Dad gave me for sneaking out last week. That, and it didn’t hurt that Kale was a total hottie.

He made no move to take the clothes from me.

“Look, no worries, all right? Dad isn’t due home for awhile and you’re covered in mud and gunk.” I set the clothes down on the seat in front of him and took a step back to grab a pair of my jeans from the basket.

Without taking his eyes from me, he gathered the clothes in his arms and stared. His expression was so intense I had to remind myself to keep breathing. Something about the way he watched me caused my stomach to do little flips. The eyes. Had to be. Crystalline blue and unflinching. The kind of stare that could make a girl go gaga. The kind of stare that could make this girl go gaga—and that was saying a lot. I wasn’t easily impressed by a pretty face.

He seemed to accept this because he gave a quick nod and slowly backed out of the room and up the stairs. A few minutes later the shower hissed to life.

While I waited, I changed out of my muddy clothes and started a pot of coffee. Even if Dad didn’t find a strange guy in the house when he got home, he’d be pissed about the coffee. I couldn’t count the times he’d told me the El Injerto was strictly hands off. He even tried to hide it—as if that would have worked. If he wanted me to leave his coffee alone, he should go back to drinking the Kopi Luwak. No way—no matter how much I loved coffee—would I drink anything made from a bean some tree rat crapped out.

I’d almost finished folding the laundry when Kale came down the stairs.

“Much better. You look almost human.” The pants were a little baggy—Kale was a few inches shorter than Dad’s six three—and the shirt was a bit too big, but at least he was clean. He still had his feet crammed into my favorite red Vans. They were soaked. Had he worn them in the shower?

“Your name?” he asked once he’d reached the bottom, the sneakers sloshing and spitting with each step. He had worn them in the shower!

“Deznee, but everyone calls me Dez.” I pointed to the soggy Vans. “Um, you ever gonna take my sneakers off?”

“No,” he said. “I cut myself.”

Maybe something wasn’t screwed on right. There was a mental facility in the next town—it wasn’t unheard of for patients to get out once in a while. Leave it to me to find the hottest guy in existence and have him be a total whack job. “Oh. Well, that explains it all then, doesn’t it…?”

He nodded and began wandering the room again. Stopping in front of one of mom’s old vases—an ugly blue thing I kept only because it was one of the few things still in the house that belonged to her—he picked it up. “Where are the plants?”

“Plants?”

He looked underneath and inside, before turning it over and shaking it as though something might come tumbling out. “This should have plants in it, right?”

I stepped forward and rescued the vase. He jerked away. “Easy there.” I carefully placed the blue monstrosity back on the table and stepped back. He was staring again. “You didn’t think I was going to hit you or something, did you?”

In eighth grade I’d had a classmate who we later found out was being abused at home. I remembered him being skittish—always twitching and avoiding physical contact. His eyes were a lot like Kale’s, constantly darting and bobbing back and forth as though attack was imminent.

I expected him to avoid the question, or deny it—something evasive. That’s what abused kids did, right? Instead, he laughed. A sharp, frigid sound that made my stomach tighten and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up.

It also made my blood pump faster.

He crossed his arms and stood straighter. “You couldn’t hit me.”

“You’d be surprised,” I countered, slightly offended. Three summers in a row at the local community center’s self-defense classes. No one was hitting this chick.

A slow, devastating smile spread across his lips. That smile had probably ruined a lot of girls. Dark, shaggy hair, tucked behind each ear, still dripped from the shower, ice blue eyes following every move I made.

“You couldn’t hit me,” he repeated. “Trust me.”

He turned away and wandered to the other side of the room, picking up things as he went. Everything received a quizzical, and almost critical, once-over. The trio of Popular Science magazines sitting on the coffee table, the vacuum I’d left leaning against one wall, even the TV remote sticking between two cushions on the couch. He stopped at a wall shelf full of DVDs, pulling one out and examining it. “Is this your family?” He brought the box closer and narrowed his eyes, turning it over in his hands several times.

“You’re asking me if”—I stood on my tiptoes and looked at the box in his hands. Uma Thurman glared at me from the cover, wearing her iconic yellow motorcycle suit—“Uma Thurman is a relative?” Maybe he wasn’t loony. Maybe he had been at the party. I’d missed the Jell-O shots, but obviously he hadn’t.

“Why do you have their photograph if they’re not your family?”

“Seriously, what rock did you crawl out from under?” Pointing to a small collection of frames on the mantle, I said, “Those are pictures of my family.” Well, except my mom. Dad didn’t keep any pictures of her in the house. I nodded to the DVDs and said, “Those are actors. In movies.”

“This place is very strange,” he said, picking up the first picture. Me and my first bike—a powder-pink Huffy with glitter and white streamers. “Is this you?”

I nodded, cringing. Pink sneakers, Hello Kitty sweatshirt, and pink ribbons tied to the end of each braid. Dad used it on a daily basis to point out how far I’d fallen. I’d gone from fresh-faced blonde with perky pigtails—his sunshine smile girl—to pierced nose and eyebrow with wild blonde hair highlighted by several chunky black streaks. I liked to think if my mom were alive, she’d be proud of the woman I’d become. Strong and independent—I didn’t put up with anyone’s crap. Including Dad’s. That’s how I imagined her when she was alive. An older, more beautiful version of me.

I looked at the scene in Kale’s hands again. I hated that picture—the bike was the last gift Dad ever bought me. The day he gave it to me—the same day the picture was taken—had been a turning point in our lives. The very next day my relationship with Dad started to crumble. He started working longer hours at the law firm and everything changed.

Kale set the picture down and moved on to the next. His hand stopped mid-reach and his face paled. The muscles in his jaw twitched. “This was a setup,” he said quietly, hand falling slack against his side.

“Huh?” I followed his gaze to the picture in question. Dad and me at last year’s Community Day—neither of us smiling. As I recall, we weren’t happy about taking the picture. We were less happy about being forced to stand so close to each other.

“Why not let them take me at the water’s edge? Why lead me here?”

“Let who take you?”

“The men from the complex. The men from Denazen.”

I blinked, sure I’d heard him wrong. “Denazen? As in the law firm?”

He turned back to the picture on the mantle. “This is his home, isn’t it?”

“Do you know my dad?” This was priceless. Score another point for my megalomaniacal Dad. One of his cases, no doubt. Maybe some poor chump he’d sent to the happy house, because that’s clearly where he belonged.

“That man is the devil,” Kale replied, lips pulled back in a snarl. His voice changed from surprised to deadly in a single beat of my heart and, crazy or not, I found it kind of hot. “My father’s a shit, but the Devil? A little harsh, don’t ya think?”

Kale scrutinized me for a moment, taking several additional steps back and inching his way closer to the door. “I won’t let them use me anymore.”

“Use you for what?” Something told me he wasn’t talking about coffee runs and collations. Acid churned in my stomach.

His eyes narrowed and radiating such hatred, I actually flinched. “If you try to stop me from leaving, I’ll kill you.”

“Okay, okay.” I held out my hands in what I hoped was a show of surrender. Something in his eyes made me believe he meant it. Instead of being freaked out—like the tiny voice of reason at the back of my brain screamed I should be—I was intrigued. That was Dad. Making friends and influencing people to threaten murder. Glad it wasn’t only me. “Why don’t you start by telling me who you think my dad is?”

“That man is the Devil of Denazen.”

“Yeah. Devil. Caught that before. But my dad’s just a lawyer. I know that in itself makes him kind of a dick, but—”

“No. That man is a killer.”

My jaw dropped. Forget balls, this guy had boulders. “A killer?”

Arms rigid, Kale began flicking his fingers like he had by the stream. Pointer, middle, ring, and pinky. Again and again. Voice low, he said, “I watched him give the order to retire a small child three days ago. That is not what a lawyer does, correct?”

Retire? What the hell was that supposed to mean? I was about to fire off another set of questions, but there was a noise outside. A car. In the driveway.

Dad’s car.

Kale must have heard it too, because his eyes went wide. He vaulted over the couch and landed beside me as Dad’s keys jingled in the lock on the front door and the knob turned. Typical. The damn thing never stuck for him.

He stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. Eyes focused on mine, he said, “Deznee, step away from the boy.” No emotion, no surprise. Only the cold, flat tone he used when speaking to me about everything ranging from toast to suspension from school.

I used to be sad about it—the fact that his career seemed to have sucked away his soul—but I was over it. Nowadays, it was easier to be mad. Trying to get a reaction from him—any reaction—was my sole purpose in life.

Kale stepped closer. At first, an insane part of my brain interpreted this to mean he was protecting me from Dad. It made sense somehow. According to him, Dad was the enemy, and I, the one who helped him back by the stream—the one who gave him my shoes and lied to those men—was a friend.

But then Kale spoke; his menacing words were delivered in a cold, harsh tone that obliterated the crazy theory.

“If you do not move aside and let me leave, I will kill her.”

Some friend.

Despite Kale’s threat, Dad remained in the doorway, blocking his path. “Deznee, I’m going to say this one last time. Step away from the boy.”

Everything Kale said about my dad rushed bounced in my head like a bad trip, churning in my stomach like sour milk.

“What the hell is going on?” I demanded, glaring at Dad. “Do you know him?”

Dad finally made a move. Not the kind of move you’d expect from a father fearing for his teenaged daughter’s life, but a simple, bold step forward. One that screamed I dare you.

He was playing chicken with Kale.

And he lost.

Kale shook his head, and when he spoke, he sounded kind of sad. “You should know I don’t bluff, Cross. You taught me that.”

His hand shot out, lightning fast, and clamped down on my neck. Warm fingers brushed my skin and curled around my throat. They were long and callused and wrapped more than halfway. He was going to snap my neck. Or choke me. In a panic, I tried to pry his fingers away, but it was no use. His grip was like a vice. This was it. I was a goner. All the stupid stuff I’d done and survived, and a random, almost-hookup was going to do me in. Where was the fair in that?

But Kale didn’t crush my windpipe or try to choke me. He just turned toward me—staring. His face pale and eyes wide. Watching me as though I was a fascinating first-place science project, mouth hanging open like I’d presented the cure for Cancer.

On my neck, his fingers twitched, and then he let go. “How—?”

Movement by the door. Dad reached into his pocket—and out came a gun? Things had gone from really weird to I-fell-down-the-rabbit-hole-surreal. My dad didn’t know how to shoot a gun! He lifted the barrel and aimed it at us, hand steady.

Then again, maybe he did.

“What the hell are you doing, Dad?”

He didn’t move. “There’s nothing to worry about. Stay calm.”

Stay calm? Was he crazy? He was pointing a gun in my general direction! If anything about that situation said calm, I was missing something.

Thankfully, my normal catlike reflexes saved our asses. Yeah. More like dumb luck. Dad squeezed the trigger and I dropped to the floor, pulling a very surprised Kale with me. I nearly ripped his arm out of its socket in the process, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He wasn’t concerned about the gun either, his attention still fixated on me. We hit the ground as a small projectile embedded itself into the wall behind us with a dull thud. A dart. A tranq gun? Somehow this didn’t make me feel any better. I could console myself with the fact that the dart hit the wall closer to Kale than me, indicating I hadn’t been the target, but still. Bullets or not, a gun was a gun. And guns freaked me the hell out.

“Move!” I hauled Kale to his feet and shoved him through the door and into the kitchen. He stumbled forward but managed to keep himself upright. Impressive considering he still had on my ill-fitting, soggy sneakers.

“Deznee!” Dad bellowed from the living room. Heavy footsteps pounded against the hardwood as he chased after us. No way was I stopping.

Dad had a specific tone he used when mad at me—which was like, ninety-eight percent of the time—and it never fazed me. In fact, I found it kind of funny. But tonight was different. Something in his voice told me I’d gone above and beyond and it scared me a little.

Something shattered—probably the half-full glass of Coke I’d left on the coffee table last night while watching “SNL” reruns. “Get back here! You have no idea what you’re doing!”

What else was new? Truthfully, even if the gun hadn’t freaked me out, it was obvious Kale, despite the badass vibe, was afraid of my dad. He’d been through something brutal—and Dad had somehow played a part in it. I wasn’t sure why this guy’s past was so important, but I needed to find out.

I propelled him out the back door and into the cool night air. We didn’t stop—even when we came to the property line. And even as we put distance between Dad and us at a breakneck speed, I could still hear my father’s angry words echoing in the cold night, “This isn’t one of your goddamn games!”