Entangled Collateral - First 4 Chaps

Chapter 4 – Entangled Collateral

paintball

I can hear whispering and think, I knew this was all just a very bad dream.

“Eh mate, seeing you made her faint,” Chip teases Grayson. “After everything she’s been through tonight.”

Damn, it isn’t a bad dream. Maybe if I lay here long enough they’ll think I died and try to get rid of my body. I lay on the floor hoping they can’t tell I’m breathing. I open one eye, and Alice spots me.

“She’s waking up,” Alice shouts in a frenzy, trying to get a pillow and fan me at the same time. Grayson and Chip come back into the room with a cold cloth and some water.

“Brooke? Are you ok?” Grayson asks with concern as he puts the wet cloth on my head.

I close my eyes, and someone shakes me.

“What—the—hell,” I say, my teeth snapping from the shaking. “Give me a minute.”

“I thought you died from shock. Warn us next time,” Chip teases. Yea, if only I’d known to tell them. Dumbass.

“I thought I was gonna have to move. You gave me a heart attack,” Alice gulps, wiping the sweat off her forehead.

“I think I can still drive home,” I say, hoping to flee as soon as possible.

“I’ll take her home and we can do this another time,” Grayson murmurs.

“All right, PB take care of her. Or I can do it,” Chip expresses with a wink in my direction.

“Ha ha,” Grayson says sarcastically as he helps me up. He doesn’t want Chip taking care of me anymore than I do.

“Wait, before I leave, what does PB stand for?” I want to know.

“Sweetheart, you can ask PB,” says Chip poking Grayson in the ribs.

“Bye Brooke. Feel better,” Alice utters in a low voice.

Grayson helps me to my car and puts me in the front seat. He takes the keys and drives me home in complete silence. I have so many questions but I don’t want to be the first one to speak. He pulls into the driveway, gets out of the car, comes around to my side to help me out, but I push him away. The minute I lift my head it spins like a merry-go-round.

“Are you crazy! How are you going to help me up the stairs? You’d make so much noise. My parents don’t even know I’m gone,” I whisper.

“How do you want to do this then,” he demands, failing to hide the annoyance in his voice.

“I can sleep in the car and get up really early and they won’t know the difference.”

“What if someone gets up and sees what you’re wearing. You’re not exactly wearing PJs,” he smirks as he checks out my cleavage.

I peer down at my revealing outfit, “I’ll tell them I was tired and fell asleep in my clothes.”

He opens the back car door and gets in the backseat to lie down. I should have locked the doors.

“What are you doing?”

“Relax, I’m just going to wait it out with you until morning, just in case something happens.”

“All right, what does PB mean?” I should probably be asking more important questions but I’m really stuck on this nickname they gave him. PB…could be peanut butter, butter fingers, purple butt. It’s just one of those things you have to know before you can move on with your life.

“You ask so many questions, just go to sleep.”

“I’ll keep bothering you until you tell me,” I threaten him.

I stick my head in between the seats, as he sits up wearily I notice the bags under his eyes. What keeps him up so late? He leans in, his face closer than it should have been, “Do you really want to know what it means?”

I stay very still, “Yes.”

He moves even closer. He doesn’t kiss me, but his lips are lightly touching mine and he closes his eyes. “I could tell you.” And then he leans back. “But then I’d have to kill you. Go to sleep.”

With my heart pounding, I try to get comfortable in the front seat and close my eyes.

The sun shining on my face and a neck ache greet me in the morning. Shading my eyes I peer over the side of my chair but Grayson is gone. My hands rub my face and the fabric from my seat is imprinted on my cheek. One look in the mirror shows the slight red tint in my eyes from being sleep deprived. I gaze at the rising sun and attempt to rouse my legs beneath me. I’m so tired, I don’t want to move.

I trudge up the porch and press my ear against the front door to listen. My mom is already up cooking, and I know my dad will be up any minute. Entering the house as quietly as possible, I silently run upstairs. As soon as I round the corner to go in my room someone clears their throat at the base of the stairs. Flinching at the sound, my shoulders slump and I stare at my feet with my back to her.

“A mother always knows,” she warns and vanishes into the kitchen.

She always knows. I really need to move out. I should have gone out my window. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten caught. My parents trust me, and since I started college all of the rules that applied in high school disappeared. They know I won’t do anything stupid, and it would only strain our relationship if they tried to keep me under constant surveillance. So I know she’s not going to punish me, but I don’t know if she is going to ask questions. What would I tell her? Alice needed me and then I got kidnapped in a parking lot. But it was only Alice, Chip and Grayson trying to find out if I was trustworthy enough to keep their information to myself. I can only imagine how that conversation would go.

I strip off all my clothes to take a shower. I could just fall over on my bed and go to sleep, but I feel icky from sleeping in the car all night. Not to mention sweating, being drugged, and slapped, and then tied to a chair. It sounds like an amateur porn movie—if only it was that simple.

My phone startles me. Alice’s name pops up on my cell and as soon as I pick up she says, “It wasn’t a dream,” and hangs up.

Of course it isn’t a dream. My life is a disaster. I can’t blame it on genetics. My mom and dad have never been in disastrous situations. Will tends to look for trouble. Maybe I’m the balance for that—he looks for it and I find it. Too bad we can’t trade.

After I shower I fall on my bed with wet hair, too tired to dry it, and sleep like a log. Thank goodness it’s spring break, and I have the week off to relax. If it’s warm enough I’m going swimming.

Someone rings the doorbell, and I hear people conversing followed by footsteps echoing on the stairs. I pull the covers over my head and lay as flat as I can against the bed. Maybe I will blend in with the bed and whoever they are will go away.

“Knock knock,” Alice sings as she opens my door. I groan forgetting to play dead. Why me?

She pulls the covers away and grimaces. “What the hell did you do to your hair? You look awful.”

“I fell asleep with it wet and as it dried I turned into cousin Itt. The Addams family… duh-duh-duh-dum,” I snap my fingers and smile at my little joke.

“Cousin Itt has nothing on you. At least his hair was combed. Your hair looks like a tornado sitting on top of your head.”

“What are you doing here? Better yet—what do you want?”

“It’s time to train,” she says dragging me out of bed and into my bathroom to brush my hair.

“Train? For what?”

“We need you to get into shape, be mentally ready, learn to shoot a gun. You know, regular self-defense stuff.”

Did she just say gun? What do I need a gun for? I stop in my tracks causing her to pull harder on my arm to get me into the bathroom. My hair must really bother her because she brushes it out and flat irons it for me. She works fast and if I let her, she’ll probably put on my makeup. I push her out of my room so I can get dressed.

She’s comfortably sitting with my mother in the kitchen making small talk when I come downstairs. I don’t think of Alice as a homebody. She gives me the impression of being on the run, never enough time to finish what she starts. I watch her from a distance as she sips the lemonade my mother offered to her. They’re talking about healthy snacks. Screw healthy snacks, I want my snacks to ruin my appetite.

I sit next to Alice waiting for them to finish their conversation. If I could procrastinate professionally, I’d be a beautiful sight to watch. It’s one of the very few things I’m perfect at. I twiddle my thumbs for another ten minutes before Alice tows me out the door. She won’t let me follow her in my own car. She probably knows I wouldn’t follow her. I would have followed her up the block and then turned out of sight and driven to the movies. I couldn’t go home because she would come back to get me, but I could watch movies all day in the theater—no one would have found me. I’d simply turn off my phone and enjoy my contraband snacks—a tub full of fatty, buttery popcorn with my large drink.

We pull up to her apartment complex and I follow her to her apartment. She throws brand new workout clothes at me and tells me to put them on. What am I in for? I think she mentioned yoga at one point. The clothes are so tight they feel painted on. I walk out of her bathroom but she doesn’t notice how uncomfortable I am because she is ready to go. We power walk to her gym for a warm-up. Actually as fast as she’s going—she walked, I ran.

I don’t feel self-conscious until I stroll through the door of the gym. Chip and Grayson are already working out. Both sweating and concentrating. Alice puts her hand under my chin to push my mouth closed. Apparently my jaw dropped and I’m drooling. Chip lifts the bench bar while Grayson spots him. When Chip finally sets the bar down, they acknowledge us. Grayson’s dimples deepen the minute he sees my tight workout clothes. His eyes assess every curve of my body. I don’t even faze Chip.

Alice starts me off with the easiest machines for arm strength. Some of them are intimidating but I don’t complain. I just listen to her instructions as we take turns. My arms are killing me after five minutes of exercising. I lay down on a padded bench with all of my limbs hanging over the edges. Alice puts her hands on her hips and waits for me to get up. After I don’t budge she steps down as hard as she can on my foot. I glare at her as she makes me get up. Grayson shakes his head and almost opens his mouth but decides against it.

After an hour of Alice’s torture, she gives me a break. I gasp for air on the dirty floor in the gym. Everything burns; my whole body feels like it’s on fire and my legs and arms won’t move. There is no way in hell I’m walking back to her apartment. I’ll never make it. Someone is going to have to carry me. They leave without me; ten minutes later I hear someone slide inside the gym. He hovers over me kneeling by my head with the corners of his mouth pulled from ear to ear.

Tilting his head so I won’t be upside down he says, “Hey sweetheart, you plan on getting up anytime soon?”

“My body is burning. No way I’ll make it.” My breath has returned to normal but my body aches. I will gladly do whatever they want as long as I never have to do that again. They weren’t prepared to torture me yesterday because the gym wasn’t open. If only they knew—I would have sung like a canary.

“Aw, that’s normal—if it’s been a while,” he doesn’t have to ask. He already knows it’s been a while.

“It’s been never.” He’s upside down again as I talk to him. He reaches under me to help me sit up, then picks me up and throws me over his shoulder. I would have protested but at this point I’m just happy to be off the floor.

“I have a nice view of your backside,” he comments. I hit him automatically, and since I’m upside down facing his back, my hand hits his butt.

“Foreplay can wait till later sweetheart. We still have to get to the range,” he says in a mellow tone.

Alice makes me take another shower. She tells me I’m not allowed on her furniture after I touched the nasty gym floor. Chip offers to help me, and I politely curse at him.

While I’m in the shower, Grayson comes in claiming he has to pee. There’s nothing like taking a relaxing shower while listening to a man pee on the other side of the curtain. I shampoo my hair and never hear Grayson leave after he finishes washing his hands. I peek around the curtain and see him sitting on the toilet lid with his head down. His boyish eyes meet mine and I quickly pull the curtain between us.

“How’d you sleep?”

“Get out,” I say loud enough to be heard over the shower.

“Come on Brew, nothing I haven’t seen before,” he chuckles. I flick water over the curtain at him. He snorts and pokes at the curtain a few times. After I scream he opens and closes the bathroom door. I don’t hear anyone on the other side, but I have to make sure he left. As I poke my head out again, he’s standing right in front of me. I gasp and move so fast, I fall in the tub. Screaming curse words, I don’t hear anyone enter until Alice asks, “Is everything all right?”

“Fuckin’ Grayson, get out!” I shout furiously groaning in pain afterward as I try to move my knee.

“I hear moaning,” Chip’s voice bellows in the bathroom. He isn’t concerned, he’s curious. He wants to know what kind of moan it is—one of passion or one of pain.

“Brew? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean t—are you ok?” Grayson calls from behind the curtain.

“I can help you out,” Chip says too enthusiastically. The shower curtain starts to move and I cover myself with my hands screaming for all of them to get the hell out.

I have no idea how I’m going to get up. Everyone exits the bathroom as I sit in the tub. As soon as I hear the door close a hand pops into the shower, turns off the water, and pulls the curtain back. High-pitched screams fill the bathroom, but Grayson has his back to me with his arm stretched behind him trying to hand me a towel. I grab the towel and drape it over my body.

“Are you decent?” he asks impatiently. I can only imagine the thoughts running through his head.

“I still have shampoo in my hair,” I complain.

“I can help you with that,” he offers. I can see his reflection in the mirror. He’s smiling but his eyes are closed.

“I can do it. Just wait for me.” I throw the towel at him and pull the curtain as far as I can reach. He pulls it the rest of the way and turns the water back on for me. While I finish he tries to make small talk.

“How’s school?”

“Fine, I guess. Busy with tests and stuff,” I answer automatically.

“Ready to graduate?”

“I wish. If I graduate I have to find a job and I’m not finding anything,” I express.

“You still need to buy your cap and gown.”

How does he know I haven’t bought my cap and gown? He has some explaining to do. I need to know what the hell is going on and what that whole thing at school was. First I met Alice; second I saw Grayson; third they fought; and last he told me to stay away from her.

“What classes do you take at U of H?” I inquire, fishing for information.

The bathroom becomes eerily quiet. He doesn’t say another word after I question him, but I know he’s still here because I can see his silhouette through the curtain. If I can see his silhouette, does that mean he can see mine?

I finish as fast as I can but soak in the warm water for a few more minutes, my aching muscles need as much time as possible. I don’t want to go to the range. If I go to the range I could possibly lose my patience with Chip’s sleazy comments and shoot him in the foot. Maybe I’ll shoot Grayson too, since I already have the gun in hand.

I reluctantly let him turn off the water. We do the same routine, only this time after I’m covered with the towel he spins around slowly opening his eyes. Giving me more time than necessary to make sure I am fully covered. He grins at me playfully, but his eyes can’t hide the concern in them. He reaches down to help me up, and I grab the towel to make sure it won’t fall as he wraps it around my back. I put all my weight on him and my right leg. My left knee is out of order. He helps me limp my way into Alice’s room. She raises an eyebrow as he closes the door behind us. “No freaky stuff!” she shouts before the door closes.

I sit on the bed with both legs straight out in front of me while he tries to determine the severity of my injury. The pain in my knee subsides as the time passes and he gives me another towel to dry my hair.

“So, you never answered my question,” I begin again. “What classes do you take at U of H?”

He stares at me for a moment, rubs the back of his head and tips the left corner of his mouth up nervously. “I don’t take any classes at U of H.”

I’m a little confused, and I guess it shows because he takes one look at me and tries to explain what he means, but all that comes out of his mouth is a round of ‘I—I…I’, ‘You have to understand—’, ‘It’s hard to explain…’, and my personal favorite: ‘You can’t get mad’.

After he paces the floor too many times to count he finally opens his mouth and noise comes out. I thought he’d lost his voice or secretly cut out his tongue from all the silence, until—Alas—he finds his voice!

“I came back in January,” he states as he slumps over to stare at the ground.

Sometimes when you give people the time to put their thoughts together, they decide not to do that but procrastinate instead. This is apparently what Grayson did. Telling me he came back in January has nothing to do with the fact that he’s not taking any classes at UH.

“Okay, I’ve decided that you need a little help with your thought process. The next sentence that comes out of your mouth should be something similar to: ‘the reason why I’m at U of H is because…or ‘the reason why I warned you about Alice is because… ,” I trail off so he can finish the sentence for me.

“Um, this is really hard to explain because you’re going to think I’m crazy. But I’m not crazy.”

When people say ‘you’re going to think I’m crazy but’, it usually means they are straight crazy. It’s never a good way to start a story, and people should know that by now. And here I am listening to a crazy person, not to mention the fact that he’s scaring the hell out of me and I don’t want to be in the room alone with him anymore.

He clears his throat a couple of times and begins. “I came back in January. I-uh wanted to come see you and so I drove to your house, but every time I got to your block I turned around and went home. It was either too late or too early, or I thought I should call first.”

What time was he coming around? Four o’clock in the morning?

Grayson continues, “Then I figured out I didn’t want to see you at your house because of your parents, so I decided to meet up with you at school. So one day I drove up to U of H…but when I finally found you, I couldn’t do it. I waited all day to get the nerve to talk to you.”

“So it was just a happy coincidence for you that it happened to rain that day and I just happened to bump into you?” I think back to the rainy day.

He shakes his head. Why is he shaking his head? That’s what happened. I remember. It started to rain, and he helped me pick up my notes. Why is he still shaking his head?

“No, that was the day you saw me, but it wasn’t the first day I saw you.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t the first day you saw me?” I question, my eyes widening.

“I first went up to U of H in February.”

He lets that sink in for a moment, and I watch him very carefully.

“Are you trying to tell me that you’ve been stalking me since February? Like, you’ve actually been going up to U of H everyday following me around?” I ask in a low, tremulous voice. My first thought is what a waste of gas! then why didn’t he offer me a ride? It explains why I constantly felt like someone’s eyes were on me. So, I really did have a reason to be concerned. I wasn’t just paranoid. Someone really was stalking me. Then I realize the person who was stalking me is in the same room with me…with the door shut. I glance at the door and want Alice to come barging through it.

“I know that it seems like I was stalking you but I wasn’t there every day. I was trying to talk to you. I was trying,” he pauses frustrated. “I didn’t know how you’d react to seeing me. I was trying to find the best way to approach you.”

“So you thought following me around without me knowing was the best solution?” I shriek.

Alice opens the door and I relax a little.

“I see he’s explaining his story to you,” Alice says relieved. “Now you know who the real psycho is.” With that, she shuts the door again.

“Wait, why did you bring Alice with you? And tell me to stay away from her?” I ask.

“I signed onto the job with Chip and Alice, and Alice is nosey. She wanted to know where I was going. She followed me, figured out you were the one who kept me away all day and decided to meet you all on her own. Then she found out about Tom, which is why I told you to stay away from her because I knew they were going to try and bring you in. That’s the last thing I wanted. By the way, she doesn’t go to U of H either; she made it all up just to meet you.”

“This is all very disturbing, and I’m not sure I want to be in the same room with you right now,” I admit.

“I know what it looks like, but—I’m sorry, OK? I didn’t mean to stalk you. I honestly didn’t know how to approach you. And every time I went to U of H, I thought, ‘Okay, this is the day I’m going to say hi.’”

“I didn’t have class the day we bumped into each other, I was only there to finish a painting.”

“Yea, well, that day I actually followed Alice to find out where she was going. And she doesn’t know your schedule, so it kinda was a happy coincidence.”

“For you maybe,” I mutter under my breath.

He gives me an embarrassed grin that shows off those damn dimples. He shouldn’t be allowed to show those things in public. They should be banned unless he’s by himself.

A rational person would try to get as far away from Grayson as possible at this point. Especially after he tells them he was basically stalking them for—oh, WOW, months. I stare at him while he peeks at me, him being genuinely embarrassed about his behavior. Do I really need to be wary of Grayson? I don’t think so. He’s harmless. But just in case something is loose in his head, I think I’ll mention to my parents he’s back in town. So if I do go missing…

“Well, you can start redeeming yourself by telling me what PB means,” I demand as he sits on the edge of the bed.

“Why should I?”

“Because you broke my knee. I’ll never be able to walk again, and—I know you peeked. Do I even need to mention the whole stalking thing?” I narrow my eyes at him. He holds his face perfectly still with not one hint of deception, but then a wide grin cracks across his face.

“How’d you know I peeked?”

Out of my entire speech, he picks out the part about peeking.

I strike out at him, but he hops off the bed. “Wait until I can walk again,” I simmer.

“Okay! Okay! I’ll tell you,” he promises, putting his hands up in surrender.

He shows off his cute dimples again and says in a serious tone, “I had nothing to do with it. Chip made it up.”

He takes a deep breath and mutters, “Pretty boy.”

I laugh so hard I almost fall off the bed. If Grayson’s reflexes were slow I would have. He catches me before I fall off the edge. I can’t argue with that. He is a pretty boy, and likes to have his nails clean and cut. His hair has to be perfect at all times, and if his shoes don’t match his belt, it ruins his whole day. He always needs a towel if he plays any sports so he can wipe the sweat off after he’s done playing. Everything he does has to be perfect. He used to get mad at my best friend, Nicoya, when she’d spoil his surprises for me.

“It’s not that funny,” he grumbles when my giggles come out in spurts instead of a never-ending flow.

“I’m sorry. No, it’s just—it suits you,” I say, stopping to catch my breath. He sits on the edge of the bed again staring into no man’s land, and it gives me a chance to actually see him for the first time since he’s been back.

His face has a sharper edge, but his hazel eyes are still compelling. He turns his head to peer at me over his shoulder and smiles crookedly. His dimples make me blush. I remember when we used to fight, and he would smile no matter how mad he was—just to calm me down. He knew his dimples won me over every time, and I’d forget what we were fighting about. If someone would have told me how it was going to end, I would have laughed in their face. I guess every love-sick teenager would.

His curious gaze burns into mine trying to find out why I’m staring at him so intently. I shift my eyes to my feet.

“What do you do? All Chip told me is that you’re the ‘artist,’” I say, putting my fingers up in air quotes to qualify his title.

“My work falls into the gray area. It’s not completely illegal, unless I get caught.”

My knee doesn’t hurt anymore, but I may as well get everything out of him now. Since he’s willing to tell me out of guilt.

“How are you going to graduate if you’re working with Chip all the time?”

“I’m already done. I finished last year, took a lot of summer school and six or seven classes every semester. I had more time on my hands, and school kept me busy. It stopped me from thinking about certain things,” I attempt to decipher what he’s trying to tell me in so many words.

“What degree?”

He scoots closer to me, and I watch him carefully while drying my hair. I pretend not to notice how close he is. He responds, “You should know what I majored in.”

“History?”

“Yep.”

“How did you start working with Chip? I know you weren’t a criminal when we were together.”

“I’m not a criminal. Believe it or not, I met him in a bar. One of my friends said he took advantage of her. So I tracked him down, found him in a bar and—before you know it—we started a bar fight. After that he tracked me down and offered me a job. He said he was impressed that I found him. Apparently he’s supposed to be hard to find. He introduced me to Lou. Lou was like—my mentor. Taught me everything I know.”

“What about the girl?”

“Turned out she was mad because she hit on him and he wasn’t interested. She was a little off,” he says, crossing his eyes and twirling his finger around in circles by his head.

Little does he know, that, technically, I can say the same thing about him. I pretend my knee still hurts, and Grayson throws my shirt at me. I put it on over the towel. The hard part is going to be putting on my underwear and jeans. Grayson twirls my panties around his finger and flings it at me. I stretch my aching body to put one foot in at a time while Grayson leans against Alice’s dresser to watch me struggle. After five minutes pass and I still don’t have my panties on, Grayson helps get both of my feet in the correct holes and pulls them up to my knees. He smirks, and I read his mind. What are the odds of him putting my panties back on instead of taking them off? I make him turn around as I pull them on under the towel.

Alice’s room is neat and tidy. She has a queen size bed, and her closet door overflows with clothes. She has two dresser drawers side by side. I assume one is Chip’s. She has two nightstands flanking her bed with a book laid out on one of them. I can’t read the title because I’m at a bad angle. Her room doesn’t have knick knacks on the dresser to give away any details of her personality, and the floor is spotless. No statues, no jewelry or pictures on the wall, not even perfume. Her room is oddly tidy.

Alice swings the door open with her hand covering her eyes. Chip is right on her heels hoping for a live porn show. He rolls his eyes and takes a step back into the living room. “They aren’t doing anything Alice.”

Alice uncovers her eyes and begins to breathe again. “You two were too quiet. How’s your leg? Can you walk?”

“Just the knee, and I don’t know. It still hurts,” I lie as I struggle to pull my jeans up. I make a face as I pull them over my knee. They both watch me struggle near the doorway.

“A little privacy,” I mutter.

Both of them leave, shutting the door, and I hurry to pull the jeans over my hips. I wait a few more minutes grunting every once in a while. Finally, I tell them they can come back in. Chip opens the door first with Alice and Grayson behind him. He casually walks by me and goes on the other side of the bed to lie next to me. Before I know it, I’m on the floor. He deliberately pushed me off. I stand up and tackle Chip, clawing at his face. Somehow he maneuvers himself on top of me and restrains my arms. He holds both my wrists in one hand and says in an opinionated tone, “I think her knee is fine Alice. What do you think?”

“Tsk-tsk Brooke,” Alice pretends to be disappointed. Damn! He got me.

I just strike air when I try to hit him once he lets me go. I run after him, and we end up in the kitchen, running around the table. Alice and Grayson sit on the couch, watching TV waiting for us to finish.

“Eh mate! When does she stop?” Chip asks Grayson.

“I warned you not to make her mad. Now you’ll have to wait until her wrath is satisfied,” Grayson yells over our scuffling.

I take the opportunity to throw a curve a ball and turn on Grayson. As long as Chip thinks I’m busy with Grayson, he’ll never see me coming. I walk slowly toward Grayson, and Alice hits him on the shoulder to get his attention. She must deal with this behavior all the time because it doesn’t faze her. I can hear Chip mumbling behind me, hoping I’ll take my anger out on Grayson. Grayson sticks out his hands in front of him so he’ll have something between us if I pounce. His eyes shift toward the bathroom. He knows he can lock the door, and I won’t be able to get to him. But I don’t need to get to him; all I want is Chip to let his guard down. I suddenly sit next to Alice.

Now they’re both confused. Neither one of them move for a few minutes. Chip shrugs his shoulders and sets off for the fridge. As soon as he turns his back, I tiptoe into the kitchen. I wait for him to close the fridge door and then I punch him in the jaw. His drink spills, and he falls back against the wall. I stand above him with my hands on my hips. Alice had followed me and she falls on the floor laughing.

“Next time I’ll break your nose,” I threaten. It’s a good thing he doesn’t know I don’t know how to break a nose.

He touches his lip to make sure it isn’t bleeding and says in an astonished tone, “I’m in for more than I bargained for, aren’t I sweetheart?”

“You have no idea,” I make my voice low and menacing.

“I told you she would find a way,” Grayson chastises Chip. “She always does.”

“I like my women feisty,” Chip remarks, lifting himself up. I don’t know what to do now. Is he mad? Should I run and lock myself in the bathroom? I think I saw a window—I could climb out the window and call someone from a gas station to pick me up. He moseys past me to get a napkin to wipe up the spill, and I relax. If he’s going to get me back, it’s not going to be now.

My satisfied expression must have set off his explanation. “I’ll get you back—when you least expect it.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I reply.

Alice shakes her head in disbelief and nabs her purse. “We’re ready when you are Chip. We don’t have all day.”

Before we leave they make me change into a jumpsuit. I would have never agreed to wear it, but everyone changed into one. Only theirs are dirtier than mine. Mine is brand new, straight from the package. I don’t know where we’re going but I know it’s some sort of gun range. I’d never touched a gun before last night. Guns never crossed my mind until I was kidnapped in the parking lot. Is it kidnapping if I’m twenty-two? Maybe it’s adultnapping?

About twenty minutes pass before Chip turns down a dirt road. We pass bright paint splats on almost everything in the vicinity of the wooded area. I read the next sign to come into view: Welcome to Splatter Zone.

Are they taking me paintballing? I start to shake my head—no way.

“Payback,” Chip promises, glancing back at me from the rearview mirror.

“Nope, you two are a team. Brooke and Chip against Grayson and me,” Alice declares.

“That’s OK. I’ll get her sooner or later,” Chip shrugs. I narrow my eyes at him.

While Chip pays for our time on the field, Alice and Grayson help me with the gear. Alice shoves a mask over my head, but I pull it off thirty seconds later. How do they breathe in these things? It rubs against my cheeks and grabs at my chin. The pressure from the mask is going to imprint lines on my forehead, and who knows how long it will take for them to disappear.

“Okay, this black thing on top is called a hopper. You put all the paint balls in the hopper,” Grayson demonstrates, pouring in the balls. “The CO2 should last you for a while. You don’t have to worry about running out.” He points to the black bottle.

“If the paintballs stop coming, you have to cock the gun again, or you ran out of paintballs,” Alice explains. She shakes the gun so I can hear the balls roll around in the hopper. “Don’t be afraid to shoot it.”

Alice aims at a nearby stump and shoots it. Yellow paint splatters over all the other colors. She hands me the gun and points to the stump. I aim at the stump and fire, but it doesn’t hit the stump. The gun kicks back with force, knocking me backward. Grayson grins and helps me practice while Alice pulls out oversized test tubes with more paintballs in them. They have velcro on them and she sticks them to her jumpsuit with two straps. She attaches one onto Grayson’s suit, one on mine, and leaves the last one for Chip.

“Remember to get a good grip so it doesn’t knock you off balance,” Grayson’s arms are around mine and I can feel the heat from his breath on my cheek. He cups his hands over mine, one hand holding the base of the gun and the other by the trigger.

“Why me?” I mumble.

Grayson mutters, “At least you look hot, even if you do die in the first couple of minutes.”

I don’t know if I should be offended or flattered by his comment. Chip watches us from a distance and shoots Grayson. “You’re getting a little too comfortable with the enemy sweetheart.”

Grayson turns the gun in my hand on Chip and shoots him. Grayson holds me hostage in front of him so Chip can’t shoot him again. Chip puts his mask on, but Alice gets in the way.

“Hey, save it!” she snaps. “You two are going to play fair. We start in five. Come on Grayson.”

“Good luck Brew,” Grayson runs past me and shoulder-bumps Chip. “I’ll see you on the field.”

“Alice is competitive,” Chip pulls up his mask to inform me, “Follow me.” He pushes my mask down over my face and drags me out on the field.

I follow Chip breathlessly to and from trees. There is dirt in places I didn’t even know I could get dirt in. I have no idea what color my jumpsuit is anymore because it’s covered in paint. This must be the payback Chip was talking about because he just watches Grayson and Alice shoot me from a distance. He waits until they hit me a couple of times before he reacts. Eventually I turned on Chip and start shooting at all of them. I’m a one-woman team. If I would have known this was part of the training I would have prepared better because now I’m somewhere lost in the woods. I can’t find any signs to tell me which way the exit is, and all I hear are weird bug noises I’m sure I’ve never heard before.

Sitting against a tree, I take off my mask hoping one of the three stooges will notice I’m missing and search for me. I wait for what seems like forever before something red splatters on the tree right next to me. I cover my head and wait to be shot, but Grayson steps out from behind a bush with his paintball gun still aimed. He cautiously lowers it and pulls up his mask. My mask comes down and I aim at him, firing ten paintballs in his direction. I inspect his jumpsuit for yellow paint but find none. Of course he shot me twice and was right on target. Figures.

We dance around the trees until he trips me. After I stand up he pins me against the tree with his body. He shoots me twice and pulls his mask up so I can see his dimples.

“This is the game you want play? Beat up on the new girl?” I huff.

“Brew, we both know you only suck because it’s your first time,” he states the obvious, taking my mask off my face and throwing it on the ground. “You look so hot.”

I feel hot—but it’s the sweaty, I-need-air, please-don’t-touch-me-because-your-body-heat-is-not-needed, hot. He tilts his head and closes the distance between our lips. My breath speeds up and I pull my face back, away from his. My reaction is so slow it doesn’t discourage him. As his lips barely touch mine, three paintballs hit Grayson in the back. The force pushes him into me and our foreheads collide.

And now I’m squished and hot.

“Sweetheart, you’re getting too close to the enemy again,” Chip chastises. I peek around Grayson. Chip’s jumpsuit is perfect. No one has shot him yet, except for the one Grayson got in before we started. Two paintballs fly through the air in Chip’s direction but he hits the ground, rolling behind a bush. Blue splotches dot the ground, and I know Alice has found us.

“Damn. Bastard just has to ruin everything,” Grayson says, looking at me while he puts his mask on.

He grabs mine off the ground and throws it at me as he runs between the trees to find Alice. Chip silently gestures for me to meet him at his spot. I put my mask on and carelessly walk to him. My jumpsuit has so many green, blue, and red paint splats on it, I don’t care who hits me anymore. No one shoots at me while I slowly tread to him. I lean against the tree he is hiding behind and hold my gun at my side, not trying to hide at all. I’m tired and I’ve already lost—forty-three times, to be exact—what’s another coat of paint going to do to me?

“You’re going to make us lose,” Chip complains to me while two red paintballs swarm past my head. Chip pulls me up against him. He waits and then steps out with the paintball gun aimed at my head yelling, “I’ll shoot her! Come out come out wherever you are!”

“Are you freaking kidding me?! You dumbass! I’m on your team!” I shriek. What the hell!

“You’re something the enemy wants sweetheart,” Chip mutters in my ear.

“The hell I am!” I yell and elbow him in the gut. He stumbles backward and falls on the ground. I put my foot on his chest and shoot him. Now he has a big bright yellow spot covering his chest. It feels so good, I shoot him again and again, until he knocks my feet from under me and rolls on top of me.

“That wasn’t nice,” he says tonelessly, but I can tell he’s impressed. Four paintballs hit him in the back before he rolls off me and starts shooting in the direction of the red and blue paintballs. Alice and Grayson come out of hiding with their paintball guns aimed at us. I glance at Chip, and he sits up on his knees with his gun to his side.

“Who would have thought Brooke would be the first one to shoot you,” Alice chirps from under her mask. Her jumpsuit is as clean as his—not a smidgen of new color.

Chip shoots Alice twice and answers, “At least it wasn’t you.”

Alice shoots him five times and takes off her mask, “It would have been better if it was me. You were shot by a beginner—that’s just sad.”

Chip lay back and put his hands behind his head. “Eh sweetheart, you want to finish what we started behind that tree?”

Grayson shoots him next. Chip groans and laughs at the same time while grabbing his gun to shoot back at Grayson. I roll my eyes and grab my gear to follow Alice back to the car.

Alice pulls out seat covers covered in paint stains and drapes them over the seats. She opens an ice chest and hands me a bottle of water. After she guzzles down half the bottle she pours the other half on her head. We turn on the car and wait silently for Grayson and Chip to bless us with their presence.

I’m exhausted. I fall asleep and wake up on Alice’s couch. Chip is sitting near my feet watching a movie. Alice and Grayson are sitting at the table eating cake.

“Nice of you to join us traitor,” Chip teases me.

“You’re the traitor,” I mumble, rubbing my eyes.

“You want some ice cream victory cake?” Alice asks me.

“You share with the traitor but not me,” Chip scoffs in disbelief.

“She’s only a traitor to you, she’s my shero,” Alice chimes, rubbing her victory in Chip’s face as much as she can.

I try to sit up and find my muscles aren’t letting me. I collapse back and Chip jumps out of his seat. He hovers over me and raises an eyebrow. I raise my eyebrow back at him and a smile pops onto his face.

“Scared me sweetheart. I thought you fainted again,” he sighs.

“Nope, my muscles aren’t working,” I admit, waiting for a smart remark. He better not test it by pushing me off the couch.

He goes into the kitchen and brings back a spoon and a jar of peanut butter. He opens the lid, scoops out a huge blob, and puts the spoon up to my mouth. Chip feeding me peanut butter is a little disturbing. I take the spoon out of his hand and groan my way into a sitting position.

“You want me to eat peanut butter when I could be eating ice cream cake?” I question his motives. After all, he did try to use me as a human shield on the paintball field.

“It’ll help with the soreness,” Chip answers as he sits back on the couch.

I glance at Alice for reassurance and she nods her head. I lick the peanut butter off the spoon. Chip watches me shaking his head. “You really don’t trust me.”

“Are you kidding me? You tried to feed me to the wolves back there in the forest! And made me work out until my bones hurt. How can I trust you? I’m still trying to decide if this is an evil plot to kill me,” I declare still licking my blob of peanut butter.

“Sweetheart, if I was trying to kill you, you’d be dead,” Chip assures me in a calm voice.

I will never see this blond-haired, blue-eyed man as a death threat. I can see him as a threat to virgins everywhere, or a test for married women, but not as a guy who kills people. He’s too hot, which probably makes him even more dangerous. People never go up to Freddy Kruger to try and befriend him. One look at Freddy and no one’s within ten feet of the guy. He screams ‘serial killer’.

I limp my way to the table and Grayson feeds me a piece of his cake. It is so much better than the peanut butter. Alice gives me a little sliver and tells me she is putting me on a diet. My jaw drops to the table. I eat my sliver and, after she takes off for the bathroom, I stuff my face with a piece of cake I cut. Grabbing Grayson’s hand, I pull him out the front door before she gets back to the table. I limp to the car and lean against it, still letting the ice cream melt in my mouth.

“What?” Grayson asks me.

“I nee you to ta me home,” I say, trying to pronounce the words the best I can without freezing my teeth.

“Oh, I gotta get the keys.” He runs back inside and comes back with them.

I relax and imagine myself in Bora Bora stretched out on the beach under an umbrella with some kind of alcoholic beverage in my hand, not noticing the car come to a complete stop in my driveway. My fantasy evaporates, and I slowly open the car door. Before I can get one foot out, Grayson is at my side helping me out of the car. I lean on the front door before I go inside my house and I try to stand up straight.

“How do I look?” I ask him.

“Like you’re in pain,” he answers by stroking his thumb against my cheek.

“Better than nothing,” I note, taking his hand away from my cheek. I tilt my head a little while moving closer to him. I stand on my tippy-toes so my lips can reach his ear. “You should have done it.”

“Done wha—,” but I interrupt him this time, brushing my lips against his and adding, “Kiss me.”

Before he can react, I push him away, open the door, and shut it behind me. I lean against the door and slide to the floor. I peek out the side window. Grayson is still standing outside with a huge dopey grin on his face. He paces back and forth a couple of times, contemplates knocking, but walks away instead.

Lack of judgment. I have to remember to stay away from him and his damn dimples. Maybe I’ll only work with Alice and Chip. I think about Chip and feel the heat rush to my face and my body starts to tingle in places that shouldn’t be tingling.

Maybe I’ll just work with Alice.

To finish Brooke’s adventure please buy the book click here —> Buy Entangled Collateral

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