Pounding rain battered the roof of Ginny Moreno’s twenty-year-old Toyota Camry, and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel even as she leaned forward, as if that would somehow help her see through the impenetrable sheets of rain. A flash of lightning illuminated the dense trees that lined this section of the country road, turning them temporarily into grasping skeletons. A crack of thunder shook the car and Ginny jumped, then cursed herself for being so on edge.
Beside her, Jacob took his feet off the dashboard. “Want me to drive?” he asked gently.
“I can drive my own damn car,” she snapped.
He held up his hands as if in supplication. “Sorry. I just thought...”
He trailed off with a shrug, but Ginny knew exactly what he’d been thinking. Jacob Salt had been her best friend since forever, and he knew how much she hated thunderstorms—and why. He’d been at her house the morning that Dillon Murphy, then just a deputy, had come to the door and delivered the news. An eighteen-wheeler had lost control on the rain-slicked surface of Interstate 10 in San Antonio. Her parents had been coming home from a concert.
They’d died instantly.
So, yeah, Jacob got it. And even though Ginny might be pissed at him right now, she knew that he was only trying to help.
“I’m fine,” she lied. “I just want to get past Bryson’s Creek before it floods, okay?” That was the trouble with the Texas Hill Country. It might be absolutely beautiful, but with the latticework of creeks and rivers, flash flooding was a common thing, especially in the summer when rain clouds tended to roll through on a daily basis.
Bryson’s Creek intersected the country road just past the Storm city limits, and right then, all Ginny wanted was to be home. She wanted to see her little brother Luis. And, yeah, she even wanted to see her older sister Marisol, who was half parent and half pain-in-the-butt.
For the first time since she’d started at the University of Texas,Ginny was excited about coming back home for the summer. The year had been weird for a lot of reasons, mostly because of men she had slept with even though she probably shouldn’t have. And, yeah, “men” included the guy sitting next to her, otherwise known as her best friend and The Guy Who Should Have Been Off Limits.
So, yeah. She needed a breather. She needed Storm.
And, yes, she knew she was being bitchy. But that was only because he’d been such an ass lately.
“We probably should have left earlier. Avoided the storm and gotten home before dark.” He spoke casually, as if he had no clue that anything other than the storm was bothering her. Then again, wasn’t that the problem? Ever since that night, he’d acted like there was absolutely nothing filling the space between them.
“I had to work,” Ginny said. “Some of us have jobs at school. And you didn’t have to drive with me. You have a car, too, you know.”
He popped a CD into the player. “Max wanted to borrow it,” he said, referring to his roommate. “It’s not like I need it in Storm,” he added, his voice rising a bit to be heard over George Strait, whose soothing, sexy voice now filled the car, competing with the timpani of the rain on the roof.
It was The Chair, the same song that had been playing the night they’d sat on the roof drinking tequila. The night they’d done so much more than just talk.
What the hell was the matter with him? Was he intentionally rubbing it in?
“Can you turn that down? It’s already loud enough in the car with the rain pelting us.”
“We should have stopped in Fredericksburg,” he said, referring to the popular Hill Country tourist destination about an hour east of Storm. He leaned over and turned down George. “We could have crashed at one of the motels on the outskirts and then finished the drive in the morning.”
She took her eyes off the road long enough to gape at him. “Come on, Jacob. Really? I mean, really?”
In a flash of motion, he slammed one Converse-clad foot against the dashboard, making her jump. “Dammit, Ginny, what is going on with you? You’ve been a total bitch for a while now.”
“Gee, I wonder why? Maybe because you’ve been a total prick for the same amount of time?”
He stared at her, that perfect boy-next-door face reflecting total confusion. Then he tilted his head back and exhaled loudly, looking suddenly sixteen instead of twenty-two. “Oh, hell, Gin.” He sounded tired. “I thought we were cool. I mean, we talked about it.” His voice was low. Gentle. “I thought we were okay, you know?”
She blinked frantically, willing herself not to cry. “It’s been weird,” she said. “You’ve been weird. You’ve bailed on me twice when we’d planned to go see movies, and then when we were supposed to have brunch at Magnolia last week, you canceled again. You’re avoiding me, and I don’t like it, and you’ve always been my best friend, and I’m really, really afraid that we screwed something up when we—”
“Oh, shit, Gin.” He bent forward and dragged his hands through his hair. “No. No. You are my best friend. I wasn’t avoiding you. I was studying—organic chemistry’s been kicking my ass, and I needed to ace it. I can’t screw up my chances of getting into a top-tier med school.”
“But you never have to study.” She knew the second she said the words that they were idiotic.
“Believe me, I know. I’m not used to getting papers back with C’s and D’s.” He sucked in air. “It wasn’t you. I was just a complete head case.” He reached for her hand, and she let him take it. Because that’s what best friends did.
“You should have told me.”
He shrugged. “I’ve got my brilliant valedictorian persona to guard.”
“You don’t have to put on an act around me. You know that.”
He cocked his head. “Do I? You’ve been a little off lately, too.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded, feeling like a complete loser. God, she’d been so unfair. He hadn’t been weird. She’d been the one who’d gotten freaky after they’d gotten naked.
The night had started out okay. Jacob had been all sad and lonely because he’d broken up with Whiny Wendy. And Ginny had been a basket case because she’d been sleeping with the wrong guy—and even Jacob didn’t know about that massive secret. It had started out all hot and exciting, but it didn’t stay that way. And Ginny hated the fact that it wasn’t real and that he was married and that she’d been so stupid, stupid, stupid to get involved with someone that far up the food chain.
So she’d gone to Maggie Mae’s with Jacob and Max and Brittany in part to console him about Wendy, but also because she’d needed to cut loose, too. And when she’d talked to Jacob, everything had felt better. They’d known each other forever. They’d loved each other forever. And they’d drunk too much, and even though they’d shared a bed dozens of times since middle school, this time when they’d returned to the house he and Max rented, one thing led to another and to another.
She should have stopped it. She knew that.
She should have told him that he was just feeling sad about Wendy.
She should have said that they’d regret it. That if they slept together, then everything would change, because didn’t sex change everything?
But she hadn’t said a word. Because, dammit, maybe she’d secretly wanted things to change. She’d been best friends with Jacob Salt since he gave her his peanut butter and banana sandwich in grade school. And maybe, just maybe, she’d wanted more.
So when George Strait had seduced them into bed, she’d gone with it. It had felt good. It had felt right. Like maybe they were going to get a fairy tale ending.
And how stupid was that? Because Ginny Moreno knew better than anyone that fairy tales never really ended well. The witch ate Hansel and Gretel. The wolf devoured Little Red Riding Hood. And all Rapunzel got was one hell of a headache from all that damned hair-pulling.
“So are we okay?” he asked now, his voice underscored by the battering rain. “I don’t want everything to change because we got drunk and stupid one night.”
“Of course we’re okay,” she said as they finally passed the sign she’d been waiting for: Welcome to Storm, Texas. A Hill Country gem. “And nothing’s going to change.” Except that was a lie, too. Because things had already changed. And Ginny knew that sooner or later she was going to have to own up to the fact that she didn’t want that night to have been drunk and stupid. She wanted it to have been earth-shattering and magical.
But if she couldn’t have that, at least she could have her best friend back.
“Good,” he said. “Great. Except...”
He trailed off, and she shifted in her seat to look at him. “What?”
“Nothing,” he said, but now there was a definite teasing tone in his voice.
“Oh, God. What is it now?”
“It’s just that it really was pretty awesome. There’s still time to cut back to Fredericksburg and get a room at that—”
She reached over and punched his arm. And just like that they were past the weirdness. “Jacob Salt, you are a complete ass,” she said happily as lightning illuminated the sky.
“Hell, yeah, I am. That’s why you lov—shit! Ginny!”
He lunged for the steering wheel, then tugged it sideways even as she slammed on the brakes, her mind whirling in confusion as she registered a deer that had leaped in front of the car.
She felt the thud of impact, then the wash of nausea as the car began to spin.
And when her head exploded and she tasted blood, all she could think was that they were never going to be okay again.
She hurt, and the pain was black and red and spiraling all around her.
And she was cold, so cold that her body shook constantly, shivering in a futile search for warmth. Needing heat. Needing comfort.
So cold. So lost.
Dark fingers seemed to pull her back, away from the red-hot knives that cut through her. The shards of glass and metal that sliced her.
But she couldn’t go—she couldn’t leave. She needed to open her eyes. She needed to help Jacob.
She needed to find him.
She needed to save him.
But all she could do was fade.
All she could do was sleep.
* * * *
“Next of kin...authorization...”
“No parents...her sister...find Marisol...”
“Fetal heart rate...one-fifty...”
“No signs...placental abruption...monitor...”
“Doctor, her eyes...”
“Ginny? Ginny, it’s Doctor Rush. You’re safe. You’re in the hospital. Can you open your eyes for me? Can you come on back to us now?”
“She’s scared. It’s okay, baby. Your sister is here—go get Marisol—everyone’s worried about you, but you’re doing fine. You’re doing just fine. All you need to do is wake up. All you need to do is come back.”
The words floated around her, and Ginny tried to grab onto them. She wanted to come back, but she was scared. Too scared.
Because memories were coming with the voices, and as the black faded to gray and the gray gave way to images, she saw what had happened. Right there in her head like a movie. She saw the deer. She saw the car slide in a full circle, then go off the road.
She remembered the sensation of flying. Of being upside down. The expression on Jacob’s face. Shock. Fear.
And then the bright, liquid red that bloomed across his chest.
Her throat had burned, and she realized now it was from screaming.
And she didn’t want to wake up. She didn’t, she didn’t, she didn’t.
Because she knew what she would find when she did.
She knew that Jacob was dead.