Chapter Two: Bribery Says I Love You

"That'll be six ninety-five," the guy behind the counter, a kid from my school that I vaguely recognized as one of my brother's football teammates, said in a bored tone that hinted at long hours and annoying customers. I handed him the money, invisible as he talked over my shoulder.

"You going to Parson's this Saturday?"

Lucas shrugged his shoulders. He leaned against the rack of books, one hand casually draped over Kayla's shoulder. "Who's all going?"

"I dunno. Rich said he might be there. Jesse's bringing a keg."

My ears perked up. Lucas noticed my sudden interest and scowled.

"Well you can bet I won't be going now, asshole," my brother hissed at him, shooting me a quick glance. The guy behind the counter caught on quickly, giving me a disgusted sort of look that told me he wished I would melt into the ground and disappear. Lucas's friends were always so pleasant to me.

"If you give me a ride up here on Monday, I promise not to tell Mom," I bargained.

Kayla gasped. "Steven!"

"Hey, it's getting expensive bribing him to drive me places, and that new manga's coming out on the second." It had gotten to the point where I was shelling out nearly a fourth of my pitiful bi-weekly paycheck from my paper route just to pay for rides to places where I could spend my money.

The scolding look on her face made it clear that this was equally as bad as decapitating kittens. I wisely didn't finish.

"Hey, I'm not going to drink," Lucas said quickly as she turned her glare on him.

"Sure. That's what they all say! And then they drink. And drive. And die."

"In that order."

"Shut up, Steven."

"Okay." Didn't matter to me, anyway. Luc could do what he wanted and Kayla could be as judgmental about it as she liked. I just wanted a ride.

"Come on, babe," he said, trying to wrap an arm around her waist. He saw this as the solution to every problem; she slapped his hand away. "You're going to be there, anyway, right? It's not like you have anything to worry about."

"Wrong," she corrected. "My mom wants me to take Rachel trick-or-treating."

He blanched. "Why can't she do it?"

"She has a conference."

His eyebrows rose slightly. "So you'll have the house to yourself?" His voice was so low and suggestive that I knew I wasn't meant to hear. Oh gross. I did not need to know that. He cleared his throat, speaking louder; "Hey, Steve, you get along with Rachel, right?"

I already didn't like where this was going, but I nodded reluctantly.

"How about you hang out with her on Saturday? I'll give you a ride wherever you want, for a whole week."

"You really think that Rachel isn't going to tell on you guys?"

"Not if I let her stay up late," Kayla pointed out. She clearly loved the idea.

Unbelievable. "Weren't you just yelling at me a minute ago for asking for a bribe?"

"No, silly. There was alcohol involved then." She waved her hand in the air as if shooing away a bug. "This is totally different."

"Yeah. Uh huh." Ew ew ew. It was at times like this that I absolutely despaired that they were dating. Eager to change the subject, I said, "Fine, whatever. But I'm not paying for your tag."

Lucas groaned. "Aw, come on. I don't have enough money with me. Just get it now and I'll pay you back tomorrow, alright?"

I sighed heavily, but nodded. He wasn't the most reliable borrower, but if he went back on his word at least I had some ammo against him.

Lucas gave his friend a thumbs up, managing to look cool while he did it, while I would have looked like a dork. "Guess I'm going. You gonna be at practice tomorrow?"

"Nah, man. What's the point? Doctor says I can't play this Friday." He held up his bandaged wrist.

"But it's the last game of the season! You gotta be there."

"He doesn't want it to get hurt worse, or else it'll be permanent." His voice raised an octave as he imitated someone I assumed was his doctor, "There's still next year to think about. I'll be at the game to cheer for you guys, though."

"Kay. See you Friday, then."

"Yeah, bye."

"See ya, Dave," said Kayla.

"See you in second period tomorrow," he yelled, though we were already out of the store and into the main mall traffic. "And tell Jessica I'm coming by her house for trick or treat!"

"Yeah. A trick is what he'll get," Lucas snorted. Jessica was one of Kayla's other friends, and even I, with my poor grasp of social etiquette, knew that she was out of Dave's league.

I didn't bother saying goodbye. I was still invisible boy. Not that I was complaining: if my brother weren't the uber-popular jock, then I would probably be beaten up every other day. I preferred being "Lucas's brother" and "Kayla's friend" to being a punching bag.

After a while, Kayla fell into step beside me.

"So, do you see anyone you like?" she asked me, keeping her voice low so that Lucas wouldn't hear.

I just rolled my eyes at her and focused on reading the back cover of my book as I walked, keeping one eye on the ground so that I wouldn't trip.

Lucas wasn't stupid or oblivious, but he usually put up with our suspicious whispering without question, especially when it involved spending my money. I'd known Kayla for almost a year before they'd gotten together, after all. Even though lately we only hung out when she came over to see Lucas, she was still my best friend.

I gave him his promised twenty-four dollars as we reached the gun store, a recent addition to our boring little mall and a topic of debate among the mothers in our community. He went directly to the back of the store, where a woman sat at the counter looking just as bored as Dave had been. She looked up from her magazine when Lucas slapped the money on the counter.

"Deer tag, please."

"I just need to see your license."

"Alrighty." Lucas handed her a little slip of fluorescent paper and she examined it for a moment, inputting data into her computer. A minute later, she handed him another slip, and a huge grin spread across his face.

"Done?" I asked him.

The cashier laughed at me. "I can tell you're not a hunter."

My brother laughed, too, instantly liking the woman. They started an easy conversation about the best guns, which I tried my best to block out: I didn't need to hear about which model of gun could steal life the fastest.

They went into the back so that the cashier—the owner of the store, I figured—could show Lucas some of their more expensive guns. I wasn't surprised that the woman took such an instant liking to him, since he was the sort of person that people naturally flocked to. I just hoped she wasn't flirting: Lucas was obviously seventeen, and that was just too gross to think about. The lady was at least thirty.

Kayla followed them into the back of the store, willing to put up with the gun talk for a chance to be near Lucas, but I stayed where I was, because something else had caught my attention.

Halfway up the aisle, stroking one long, pale finger down the barrel of a rifle, was a boy. I remembered Kayla's brilliant observation that there were boys at the mall and smiled to myself.

His black shirt was frayed at the sleeves, but his pants looked newer. They were red and black plaid, with chains crisscrossing around the back. His hair was bleached white, tipped in red where it ended at his sculpted jaw line. I watched him as he examined the gun on the wall. I couldn't see his face, though I could imagine his expression of admiration from the way his fingers moved across the smooth metal.

I chuckled. This guy had no chance whatsoever at buying a firearm.

His fingernails were painted black, I noticed, just as he slipped the hand into his pocket and turned to look directly at me. I averted my eyes quickly, busying myself with rereading the back of my book.

Fuck! He heard me.

His audible pants announced that he was walking toward me. He stopped right next to me, too close, his head tilted over my shoulder like he was reading the book as well.

"Hey, Beautiful," he said, like it was my name. I looked up at him in disbelief, my awkwardness washed away with the shock. Despite the high probability that he would pull a revolver out of his pocket and shoot me in the face, I glared and gave him a name that was much more appropriate.

"Hey, Sleazy." I stepped away, so that he was no longer breathing down my neck.

He smiled—and looked like a serial killer. "It's Arthur, actually. What's your name?"

"Definitely not Beautiful," I said, and turned to walk away. He kept pace with me easily.

"You're not going to tell me your name?"

I stopped and looked up at his face full of metal. He was older than I'd thought at first...in his twenties, probably. And he was gorgeous, despite his pierced eyebrow and lip, and the distinct air of creeper. His kohl-rimmed eyes were a pretty hazel, green fading to gold near the pupil.

He was almost too good-looking. I couldn't imagine anyone calling this guy a pretty-boy, though. Not with the way he dressed. Not even despite that he was obviously gay enough to hit on dudes in a gun store.

He was crazy. Had to be.

"No." I kept my answer simple and started walking again, this time in the direction I'd just come from. I couldn't exit the store like I wanted to, since I had to wait for my brother. The guy changed direction with me, following directly behind, far too close, the chains on his pants jingling a merry little tune.

"Why not? I saw you looking at me."

"I wasn't." I stopped at the end of the aisle and turned back, crossing my arms, and he stopped too.

"Oh, my mistake. I'm sorry." He sounded contrite. His pierced lip pouted slightly, a pathetic look on his face. He was still messing with me. "Please forgive me?"

My skin was crawling. "No."

I spotted my brother stepping from behind the curtain in the back and waved to him. Lucas frowned as he saw the guy standing next to me, and started toward us.

"Is that your boyfriend?" Arthur asked. He didn't seem mocking, or even disappointed: only amused. His eyes flickered with a slight hint of excitement.

"My brother."

Arthur grinned. "I'll see you around, Beautiful." He broke away at the end of the next aisle, giving me a little wave of his fingers and a peculiar smile before he turned away. His pants rang all the way down the aisle, and continued as a dull echo when he was out of sight.

"Was that guy bothering you?" my brother asked me, staring after Arthur. I shook my head, but I was secretly glad that Lucas had chosen that moment to appear. Thanks to a few unfortunate childhood incidents that had guilted him into becoming fiercely protective of me, I could always count upon Lucas to scare bullies away if they got too threatening. And Lucas was certainly intimidating: he looked a bit like a convict with his Terminator physique. And he still smelled like a dead deer, despite the fact that he practically marinated in cologne every other day of his life—a point that I promised myself I would never bring up again. Even though it was overkill, it was preferable to Eau de Sanguine.

"Come on, let's get going," Kayla prodded, wrapping an arm around his waist. When Lucas's attention was focused elsewhere, she mouthed back at me, "He so wanted you."

I rolled my eyes. Every time she tried to choose me a guy, I reminded myself of the time we watched a horror flick and she commented that it was cute the way the vampire flirted with his victim.

And plus, she was dating my brother. That didn't say much for her taste in men, in my opinion.