“Nick!” she snapped. “Stop it! Now get over there and play.”
Alex bit back a laugh. “I don’t think she’s going to let you escape until you play something.”
“Yeah, ’cause I have not been embarrassed to my bones enough times today. Thanks, Case.”
Alex gestured to Eric. “I know you know Eric already.”
Dressed black on black, Eric had a blond streak in the middle of his dyed black hair that he wore spiked all over his head. He jerked his chin in greeting. “What up, Gautier?”
Not my dignity. That’s for dang sure. “Eric.”
Next, Alex indicated a guy who looked closer to Eric’s age than Nick’s. “Our lead singer is Marlon Phelps.”
He stood up to shake Nick’s hand. With dark skin and black eyes, Marlon was several inches shorter than Nick. And as he drew close, he raked a hungry look over Nick that quickly told him they were on entirely different teams when it came to pursuing prom dates.
“Hi,” he said in a wispy voice as he extended a hand toward Nick. “Please, call me Marla or Marls.”
“Hi, Marls.” Nick shook his proffered hand.
Alex continued his introductions. “And the silent, moody one over there, with the sunglasses he won’t take off, is our bass player, Duff Portakalian.”
Duff had short, jet-black hair and an aura around him of a street punk who’d rather rip your head off than shake your hand. But as he gave a nod toward Nick, Nick saw his real form flash through his mind. Like Alex, he might appear to be a guy in his teens, but in reality, he was in his early thirties … and a werepanther. One of the most peculiar things about Were-Hunters was that they aged a lot slower than humans. Their adolescence hit them in their late twenties and early thirties. At which point they were put in human schools to help them learn how to interact with nonpreternatural beings.
Something that didn’t always work out to everyone’s benefit.
Duff ignored him completely.
Alex sighed. “You’ll have to forgive him, Nick. He has perpetual PMS.”
“Hey!” Casey snapped indignantly. “That’s a sexist thing to say!”
Alex laughed. “Not your PMS. His PMS. Premeditated Mental Sickness.”
Scowling, she looked back and forth between them. “What’s that?”
“He’s pretending to be clinically antisocial. Right, Duff?”
Duff flipped him off.
Ignoring the gesture, Alex turned back to Nick. “Anyway, we’ve been asking everyone to play ‘Wipe Out’ if they can … or whatever else you might know that’s rock.”
Wipe out. How apropos, since that was what he was about to do.
Nick looked to Casey, still wanting an out, but she wasn’t about to give him one. She appeared even more determined than before.
Nick scratched nervously at the back of his neck. “You wouldn’t happen to have an extra set of drumsticks I can borrow … would you?”
Duff curled his lips. “He doesn’t even have his own sticks? C’mon, Alex. This is a complete waste of my time.”
“Oh shut up,” Casey snapped at him. “Like you have anything better to do than feel sorry for yourself.” She reached down and snatched a set of sticks from the guitar case at Eric’s feet.
Nick wasn’t sure which of them was the most stunned by her actions. He didn’t know if he should apologize or run.
She pressed the sticks into his hands. “Show them what you can do, baby.”
Nick still wanted to vomit. But what the heck? He’d suffered far worse humiliations in his life than this one. At least she wasn’t bra shopping with her mom while his mother oohed and ahhed over lacy panties in public while he held her pink purse.
Wanting a giant black hole to suck him out of this, he went to the standard five-piece red drum kit and took a few minutes to adjust the throne and pieces for his height. He put his foot on the pedal and took inventory of what he was working with. One floor tom, two rack-mounted toms, the snare and bass. Hi-hat and cymbols—two crash and one ride.
All right. Everything he needed to fully embarrass himself. Cool beans.
This too shall pass.…
And unfortunately, he would live through it.
With a sigh of dread, Nick closed his eyes so that he wouldn’t have to see their horrified faces, and searched his memory for something he could play that wouldn’t be too mortifying for any of them.
All of a sudden, in the back of his mind, he heard the sound of crashing thunder, then a freaky laugh, and someone saying wipe out.…
The next thing he knew, he was playing the song. No, not playing …
He was owning it. Without missing a single beat …
What the heck? How could he do this? He’d never really played this song before. Only heard it a few times on the radio. Yet his body went through the movements and notes as if he’d played it a thousand times.
Alex came to his feet with a cheerful whoop, then reached for his guitar and joined in with the riff.
Yeah, okay, not to sound egotistical, but it was pretty epic. Nick smiled as he tasted real pride for the first time in his life. And when Duff joined in and started jamming with them, he really felt like something other than a stone-cold loser.
Even Madaug’s little brother Ian came outside to listen to them play. Though why Ian was dressed as a box was anyone’s guess.…
But at least the little box liked Nick’s music. For that alone, he might be willing to adopt a younger brother the next time Madaug tried to give Ian away.
Two minutes later, Nick finished with a flourish. Ian jumped up and down, cheering along with Casey. At least until he lost one box arm that he had to quickly pick up and attempt to reattach.
Nick wasn’t sure who was more surprised by his lack of suckage. The guys or him.
Duff tucked his pick into the strings on the neck of his bass. “You’re good, Gautier. Real good.”
Coming from his surly personality, that had to be a giant compliment. “Thanks, Duff.”
Duff inclined his head to him, then set his bass aside.
“Well?” Alex asked the group.
“He’s got my vote,” Eric said.
Marlon nodded. “Definitely fine by me.” A slow smile broke across his face. “In more ways than one.”
Alex beamed. “Then it looks like we have a band. All we need now is a name.”
“Pokemon Live!” Ian shouted.
Eric curled his lips at his brother. “We’re not across the river, Ian. Go inside and leave us alone.”
Ian glared at him. “I hope Madaug turns you into a zombie again, you freak, and this time the principal eats you!”
Eric took a step toward him. Ian let out a yelp and jack-rabbited for the house, shedding pieces of his box costume in his wake.
With a sound of disgust, Eric shook his head. “I knew I should have traded him for a sister when I was a kid.”
Ignoring Eric’s family drama, Duff leaned forward on his chair to put his elbows on his knees. “What about Vexed?”
Eric shook his head. “We don’t want a name people will have to look up to understand.”
“Vexed?” Duff asked in a disgusted tone. “Really?”
“Hey, have you met the average student at our schools?” Eric asked.
Duff backed down. “Point well taken. Vexed is out.”
Casey exchanged a frown with Nick, who had absolutely no idea what to name the group.
Eric tapped his long black nails on the speaker in front of him. “What about Five Angry Guys?”
When the others started to agree, Nick spoke up fast. “Uh, no. Never.”
Duff frowned. “Why not? I like it.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Alex said.
Nick held up his hands. “Fine, but when people shorten it, and they will, we’ll be known as F-A-G.”
Eric, Alex, and Duff were mortified by the acronym.
Marlon laughed. “Oh, I like it even more.”
The other members exchanged uncomfortable grimaces.
“Oh c’mon, y’all,” Marlon said, still pressing for it. “We’ll be like Queen, with Freddie Mercury.”
Nick draped his arm around Marlon’s shoulders. “While that will help you with your dance card, Marls, it will leave the four of us relegated to tundra status at school. Please have mercy on us. We beg you.”
He sighed wearily. “Fine. But we could change it to Five Angry Men. ’Course I’m not angry, but I’m willing to learn.”
Nick laughed as Alex chimed in with approval.
“Five Angry Men, it is.” Eric went to clap Duff on the back.
“Don’t touch me!” he growled like the panther he was.
Eric jumped back.
Casey leaned against Nick and smiled at him. “Told you you could play the drums.”
Something in her tone set his inner warning system off. “How did you know?”
She shrugged. “You look like a drummer.”
He also looked like an idiot in the tacky shirts his mother insisted he wear, but that was definitely untrue.
Suddenly suspicious of her, Nick handed the sticks to Alex, who refused to take them back.
“Keep them. We’re going to be practicing here in Eric’s garage three nights a week. If you want extra time, you can use Damien’s practice kit in the club room at Sanctuary. The Howlers usually practice really late at night or early in the morning. So the kit should be free for your use during after-school hours.”
Nick was touched by Alex’s generosity. But then that was one thing about the bears, they were all kindhearted and had been stone-cold decent to him and his mom.
“When’s the first practice?” Nick asked.
Alex zipped his guitar into a black gig bag. “Day after tomorrow. Four to six.”
Nick sucked his breath in sharply. “That conflicts with football.”
Alex considered it for a minute, then looked over to the others. “Can we do seven to nine?”
Duff shrugged. “I don’t care.”
“Fine with my schedule,” Marlon said.
Eric nodded. “Tabby might be a little nuts since it’ll cut into her vampire stalking time, but that shouldn’t be too big a deal. She prefers I play in a band, anyway.”
Nick had to bite back a laugh about that. He’d met Eric’s girlfriend, Tabitha Devereaux, before he’d met Eric. While she was sexy on a level unto herself, she was a bit touched in the head.
“Seven it is,” Alex said, dragging Nick’s thoughts back to them. “We’ll see you then.”
Casey wrapped herself around him and walked him back toward her car. She beamed at him the whole way. “How do you feel, Nick?”
He hated to admit it, but … “Unbelievably good about myself. Thank you for making me do this.”
“No problem. Sometimes we don’t know what our talents are until we try.”
Maybe. Still, he would never have listed this on his résumé. Of course, he was sure it was his powers that gave him this ability. Like the answer in chem class …
He was growing stronger every day.
“I’m in a band,” he breathed, unable to believe it. He’d always wanted to be in one. The dream had been so strong that he’d never really spoken about it to his mom. Mostly because he didn’t want to upset her over the fact that they couldn’t afford it.
Now that they could …
He was going to rock the house down, and use his powers for something other than evil.
* * *
Inside Artemis’s temple on Mount Olympus, Ambrose stumbled as a fierce pain ripped through his skull. It was a familiar agony he’d learned all too well these last few years.
Nick had changed something in their past that had affected their future.
Closing his eyes, he tried to see what it was that had altered. But before he could, another wave of misery consumed him. And this one drove him to his knees.
“What are you doing, Nick?” he breathed, trying to push the pain away enough so that he could focus.
It was useless. The agony pulled him under and refused to let him go.
He winced at Artemis’s voice that resonated inside his aching skull.
She knelt beside him, then gasped. “Your nose is bleeding.”
That he already knew since he could taste it. She cupped his face in her hands.
“I’m all right, Artie.”
Artemis shook her head in denial. “You don’t appear to be all right. You look rather sick and pale.”
Worse, he was shaking. “I need blood.”