Chap 3

Blurry bloodshot eyes looked out at me as he shifted, his hair bristling against plush satin pillows.

He grunted and shoved his face back into the pillow. I prepared to leave when I noticed that even his shoes were still on. Hesitating again, I made a quick decision, and reached down Malec's still body.

At that, he jerked and shifted, staring down at me. I almost felt the charm flick on as he doled out a slow grin, "Undressing me already?"

I put his shoes down by the door, then returned to pull out the bedcovers the way I'd done once upon a time for someone else. I expected him to say more, but he thankfully didn't.

"I'll find some Ibuprofen for you. Will you be ok?"

"This isn't my first time, you know." He suddenly sounded irritated.

"Of course," I murmured, tucking him in reflexively.

His hand shot out to my wrist, and he yanked me bodily forward, "I'm not a baby to tuck in. Not unless you want to tuck yourself in with me." He moved his other hand to the back of my head, while my nervous system went haywire. I could see the flecks of hazel in his eyes, not blue like his oldest brother Jeremiah's, but blue like the abyssal zone of the ocean. In fact, in that instant, he resembled Core to a T.

"I won't tuck you in," I said softly, feeling strange about breathing the same alcohol-drenched air he was—we were, after all, just inches apart. So I tried pulling away gently.

But when he pulled my head down, I yanked away in earnest. Flushed, I danced away a few feet from his bed.

"You would maybe like some water to dilute the concentration of alcohol in your liver?" I babbled, flipping off his lamp and tripping my way back to his door, not even noticing the grandeur of his room as I made what felt a little like an escape. I had only just closed his door when I turned around to nearly bump into Core approaching me.

Neutrally, his eyes flicked to the door behind me and back before moving past me to his own room. My hand at my throat, I called out, "Wait!" and reached out before I could stop myself. He simply turned around, blue eyes as dark as Malec's, if not darker in the unlit hallway. I was glad he probably couldn't see me, since I was willing to bet the redness on my face hadn't subsided, but at the same time, Core Mercer looked rather scary in the dark.

I gulped now and asked quietly, almost hesitantly, "Do you know where there's any Ibuprofen?"

Core pointed to a door down the hall on the left, and I darted down there, finding a clean bathroom with arched golden faucets. The cabinets produced Tylenol, and I popped out two. Core was right where I'd left him, surprisingly, and I quietly opened Malec's door, slipping the pills to his bedside.

Padding back out of the room, I noticed Core watching me, and I impulsively explained, "I don't usually believe in pills. Let the body work out its own toxins and all, but I figured—" I glanced up; there was no inflection in Core's eyes, so I finished lamely, "I figured it'd be better than him lashing out the next day… or worse, missing school."

I almost thought I saw Core's mouth twitch out of the corner of my eye. I amended, "The first day of school," wondering if I had imagined it.

Core crossed his arms over his chest, "Maybe he'll lash out if he doesn't have any clothes."

I quickly waved him off, "You go on to bed. They'll be there in the morning." I paused, then asked, "Do you want colors for tomorrow?

"I don't care," he muttered, and I nodded.

"You going to sneak into my room, too?"

I felt myself flush again, or maybe I hadn't stopped. "I'll just leave them outside your door."

I walked towards the left wing to call Janice for dinner, but I saw a lump in her bed, and the easy breaths of deep sleep. Closing the door, I walked down the hall to Marie-Clare's room, hoping she'd come home.

Home. I yawned and smiled as I opened her door. I found her brushing her hair at her vanity table, and her light lashes lifted to take in my entrance from the glance in her mirror. I admired her dark eyes—nearly black in the shadow of her lamp—and even then, the room could not hide the shining blond of her hair. I unconsciously fingered my own brown.

"Hey, I was just checking in," I looked around her uncluttered room, remembering that Janice had generously sacrificed the largest room to her. "You ready for tomorrow?"

Marie-Clare put down her brush, "What are you—my mom?"

I cleared my throat, "There's some lasagna downstairs, if you're hungry."

When Marie-Clare didn't respond, I said, "Anyway, the bus stop is across the road from the house."

She shot me a glance, and I knew she was thinking about the station wagon she had parked in the back of the house.

"Janice might need the car tomorrow, and it's not like we've never ridden the bus. We'll leave right after Core and Malec drive the twins to school."

Marie-Clare paused. "I met one of them earlier tonight. I stole a beer from the drunken bunch." I realized she wouldn't mention the station wagon, and it hit me that the students at Trinity Alcott would never drive something as tacky as a station wagon.

"That was probably Malec," I told her now.

Marie-Clare got up. "Why don't we get rides from one of them? We go to the same school."

I bit my lip, unsure, but she announced she intended to go to bed, so I murmured "night" and closed her door, proceeding to the billiards room where Malec had invited friends over. Scattered beer cans rested on the tables, so I began cleaning up.

Returning to the kitchen with a full garbage bag, I found, Mrs. Mercer handling the pan of lasagna.

"Hi, Mrs. Mercer. You're up late. Let me grab you a plate."

Mrs. Mercer looked up, her bob swinging, "I followed the smell here. Why don't you use the front kitchen?"

That made me pause, "Oh, I guess I just… I thought housekeepers eat back here, so… I don't know. I just set up here. I guess I…" felt awkward.

"Feel free to use the main kitchen," Mrs. Mercer said neutrally. "No one's used this one in ages."

I nodded, and made my way around the kitchen, dumping the trash bag by the laundry room.

"You certainly make a lot."

"I make enough for everyone. Just in case."

"Maybe I should set up dinner time so none of your food goes to waste."

I chuckled, "I know everyone eats at odd times, so I'm not sure who would show up for a set dinner."

Mrs. Mercer glanced up sharply at this, "They would come if I ordered it."

I gave her an absent smile in response, grabbing myself a plate and sitting down as she picked up her folders, saying, "I need to work late tonight," and left.

.

I walked into the classroom as the bell rang, and chose a seat by the door.

Resting my head on my hand, I strained to keep my eyes open, but I almost didn't notice the silence during roll-call until too late.

Jolting up, I said, "Sorry, here."

"Lydia Gerarde?"

I only hesitated a fraction of a second, "Yes."

It turned out I shared this first class with Core, which surprised me since he was a senior. He sat in the back, in the middle of a group of rather exceptionally groomed and elegant students. In fact, they caught my eye again at lunch, but some of them seemed intermingled with Malec's table. I wondered if the brothers interacted with the same friends.

I searched the cafeteria for Marie-Clare, and she seemed happy chatting with some guys in her year. I didn't share a class with her, unfortunately, even though I shared one with Core.

The cafeteria swam with voices, excited after a long summer of excursions I could never afford. As I walked to an unobtrusive table, I realized, not for the first time, just how much money the students at Trinity Alcott possessed. They did not necessarily flaunt it; they just understood and accepted it as fact.

My tray of food sat before me and I sighed, wishing I'd packed my lunch earlier this morning, but there hadn't been time.

Marie-Clare's footsteps woke me up—and I belatedly noticed my alarm beeping. I took the fastest shower of my life, and stormed down the stairs to see the twins packing schoolbags, and Malec at the counter talking with Marie-Clare. He didn't look as though a hangover ever touched his body, with his bright eyes focused on her, his body leaning against the kitchen island.

I watched Marie-Clare brush away a strand of golden hair, and I could hear the playful tone in her voice, the tilt of her pink lips. I almost wanted to keep studying her in fascination, but I was already running late. I ignored them as I walked in, observing Emily explaining something in earnest to Jaz, who listened to her with a frown. His green eyes caught my attention as he stood beside his blue-eyed twin, and I wondered where he, of all his siblings, got the green. Perhaps his father. Malec gave me a brief glance, and Marie-Clare arched a delicate brow.

"Someone's late this morning. I didn't think you'd make it on time."

"Sorry," I murmured. "Did you all eat breakfast?"

Jaz faced me, and showed off a nutrigrain bar. Emily yanked his arm down and glared at me, then turned it on Marie-Clare, who was closer.

"Who are you?"

Marie-Clare eyed her, "Marie-Clare."

Emily didn't seem to know what to do with this, so Malec waved, "She's Lydia's sister."

Marie-Clare seemed like she wanted to say something to that, but she kept her mouth shut.

"Then shouldn't you have made us breakfast or something?" Emily asked.

Marie-Clare made a face, "I'm not the housekeeper. Lydia is the one who applied, so she and Mom handle that."

"So what do you do?" Emily sneered. "Mooch off?"

I interjected before Marie-Clare's pride convinced her to leave the house and us, "I wanted Marie-Clare to stay with us. I asked her to, if that's alright with you."

Emily thought about that, but not for very long as she turned to Marie-Clare, "Why do you have such a long name? Why not just Marie or something?"

"It's already shortened. My full name is Mariana-Clareise."

Emily's eyes widened appreciatively. Then she observed me, "Why's your name so short, then?"

Marie-Clare almost laughed, "Mom didn't care enough to name her."

I ignored her. "My name's long enough, isn't it? Did you eat anything, Emily?"

"Yes. Why didn't your mom care enough?"

To stop Marie-Clare, I quickly replied, "She named me after her nurse's mother, Lydia."

Marie-Clare bent towards Emily, "Meaning the birthing nurse named her."

I sighed, then looked up at Malec watching the group of us. "Did you eat anything?"

Malec turned away, "Wasn't hungry. I'm good. I got to take Jaz and Emily to school."

"So do you think you or your brother could carpool us to school?" asked Marie-Clare.

A voice from the doorway behind me answered, "I'll take them, Mal. Jaz and Em are going to be late." I ignored the ripples that ran up and down my arms at the voice.

I rotated and found Core leaning against the doorway in a forest green T-shirt with dark subtle designs curling around his shoulders. I wondered how long he'd stood there. Opening my mouth to ask him if he'd eaten, he cut me off, "I had a breakfast bar. Come on. You're going to make us late."

As he began walking away, expecting Marie-Clare and me to follow, he paused and said, "Grab yourself one from the pantry, if you want."

Malec eyed his brother strangely when I made another circle on the polished floor, searching for the pantry. "Marie-Clare, you want one? I don't know if you've eaten."

Emily interrupted with, "Can't we just call you Marie or something?"

This time, I almost laughed, "You'd better not. She might bite… your…" I stuttered to a stop as I saw Marie-Clare's face.

She turned to Emily and smiled, reminding me of how painfully beautiful she was. Her hair swung out behind her back, the slight waves catching light from the windows. But it was her face that caught something inside everyone who looked at her. Her eyes seemed gentle, something perpetually innocent and sweet in her face, regardless of whatever emotion or makeup attempted to alter her. "You can call me something shorter, if you really want, but my mom always liked the flow of the name. Shortening it to Marie-Clare was already pushing it. Don't you think?"

The smile invited agreement, and Emily nodded.

"It sounds prettier, doesn't it?" I offered, knowing that wouldn't redeem me in Marie-Clare's eyes.

She moved to stand beside Core. I pulled at my ponytail as I opened the fridge and gave Marie-Clare what she wanted most at the moment.

"I'll make some breakfast for myself. You guys go on; I'll catch the bus."

Core shrugged, swinging his keys from his hand and walking out with my sister.

The fish that sat in front of me now didn't look much better than the nutrigrain bar and orange juice I had that morning. Someone interrupted my thoughts when a tray appeared on the table before me, held by strong brown hands belonging to a set of muscled arms, and connected to the chiseled face of a black guy in one of my classes. He had no hair, or at least not enough to notice, and it looked rather ridiculously good on him. He had a lean athlete's body, and I noticed with surprise a sharp curling tattoo over the side of his neck.

"Hey, okay if some friends and I sit here?"

"Of course. I'm not taking any usual spots, am I?"

He chuckled, "No. I'm Joshua. Josh." He held out his hand, and I clasped it, giving him my name.

He sat down across from me, "I thought I recognized you from first period, right?"

Before I could respond—because frankly, I couldn't remember—a guy with shaggy hair and lazy eyes joined us, followed by a girl with frizzy brown hair, barely tamed by a low scrunchie at the back of her neck.

"Isabelle," the girl proclaimed. The shaggy guy that sat beside me introduced himself as Mark.

"You new here?" Isabelle asked.

When I nodded, Mark muttered, "Tough. Moving here so near the end of high school."

I shrugged, "I'm sure others have it worse." Marie-Clare was in her senior year, but she seemed to be coping fine, thankfully.

Mark sent me a considering smile. "Yeah?

Some more friends joined the table, and most of them seemed just as prosperous as the ones sitting directly around me. Everyone seemed relaxed after summer. Happy to be back.

"What're you smiling about?"

I looked up from my fish to see Josh tilting his head down to watch my face. I shook my head.

"Tell me about this school," I prompted.

Josh shrugged again, "Most of us are pretty average. A lot of clubs, I guess." Suddenly he grinned, and I realized how attractive he was, as if I hadn't noticed the way Isabelle's eyes followed him. "You could say that about a lot of schools, really."

More groups passed our table, and they all spoke with Josh before moving on. He saw me watching, and gave me a self-deprecating smile, shrugging it off.

Isabelle saw us, and divulged, "The basketball team here is big. Huge. Guess who's on our amazing all-stars achieving basketball team?"

Josh laughed self-consciously when I turned expectantly to him, "Thanks, Is." He focused on me again, "The team is pretty big at this school. You should come out to our games during the season. But I'm on the soccer team, too, and it's soccer season. Mark's on the team with me."

When I looked at Mark, he saluted, mouth full. It was then that I caught Marie-Clare's eye by accident, and almost unconciously, she gave me a tiny smile. I didn't know if it was due to people around her, or because Core passed her and she smiled readily up at him, but it didn't matter.

The guy beside Marie-Clare called out, "Mercer, man!"

I couldn't see Core's face, but I was curious to see his expression—if he expressed anything towards his friends. His coldness—and I didn't even know if I could call it that since it felt so empty—disturbed me on an unconscious level, and roused a curiosity I could not fathom. I noticed Malec at a nearby table; people surrounded him, laughing and joking. Isabelle followed my gaze, and said, "Ah, the Mercers."

Josh turned around to look. "They're both on the basketball team, too. Actually, Mercer's captain of it." He chewed briefly, "Oh, and Malec's captain of our soccer team."

Mark contributed between bites, "Mercer as in Core Mercer. He got dibs on last name reference."

Isabelle gave a loud sigh around her food, "The Mercer boys are so damn yummy. The younger one—the one in our year—Malec, is a lot friendlier, though."

Mark pretended to choke on some food, "You want to try the word 'player.'"

Isabelle's eyes widened at me, "They have an older brother too, you know that? I heard he's like some sort of sun-kissed god."

I told myself I wasn't blushing. That's what first occurred to me when I met him, too. I didn't realize I said that aloud until Isabelle asked abruptly, "You've met him?"

I wondered if I should explain my position at the Mercer house, but I didn't know how Core or Malec would react to that. Mark saved me when he laughed, "Don't become a fan of them, too, I beg you. We mortal males need some admirers, too."

Startled, I said truthfully, "You're not bad at all, though."

Mark blinked, as did Isabelle and Josh. "Did she just hit on me? Did she? Tell me she did."

I knew I blushed this time, "I wasn't—"

Josh laughed outright, "It's ok. Mark just likes being ridiculous. He's dating Mei, the Asian girl at the end of the table."

They laughed, and while they did not necessarily mean harm, I also did not know how to respond. Someone stopped by the table then, and I gratefully looked up.

Surprised by her presence, I opened my mouth, but Marie-Clare cut me off without making eye contact. "I need to take the bus with you after school."

I nodded, then remembered she couldn't see me, "Yea, sure."

There was a pause. Then Marie-Clare looked exasperatedly at me, "Well, what's the bus number?"

"Oh. Seventy-four."

Nodding, she moved off with her new friends.

"Who was that?" asked Isabelle, still staring after Marie-Clare. "Gorgeous as she is, I don't think I want to get on her bad side."

Remembering her smile, I frowned, "She's not that bad."

Isabelle raised her brows, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize she was a friend."

"That was…" I looked back as if that would give me the answer, "my sister."

Josh whistled softly, and I caught him gazing after her as well. In fact, a few of the other guys at our table had paused to watch her walk away, blonde curls swaying to her waist.

Mark raised an eyebrow, then looked at me, "I can kind of see a resemblance."

I looked at him sharply, but his hands shot up, "I was being serious!"

Isabelle asked me what I had done to tick my sister off, and I bit my lip from responding that I simply existed. I shrugged.

Catching Core's eye by accident, I wondered if Marie-Clare had told her new friends about them.

I doubted it.

.