That was one way of saying it. Bubba had practically sent him a tree, with one little note.

Hospitals wig me out unless I'm the one being tended. Sorry we're not there, kid. Get well soon. Remember next time ... Double tap. Bubba and Mark

Nick watched as she left and then closed his "door." Rubbing his sore eye, he ignored her talking with Menyara until he heard his name mentioned.

"You think this mess will stunt his growth, Mennie?"

Menyara laughed. "No, chere. Your boy's going to be a fine, tall man one day. I promise you."

"I don't know. My dad was awfully short. Barely five foot four. I know Nick's taller than that now, but I'm scared to death he's going to stop growing and be a munchkin like me."

"That's 'cause you're Cajuns, child. You're supposed to be short. Be weird if you weren't. ButAdarian's a tall, handsome man and his boy's going to be just like him in looks. Trust me."

Those words made Nick's blood run cold.

Adarian Malachai was his father and he was a monster. The mere mention of his name conjured up an image of a giant, hulking beast of a man in prison threads, covered in heavy tattoos. Nick had never seen the man when he hadn't been snarling at everyone around him and shoving people who got near him—including Nick's mom.

Angry, bitter, and rude, his father was a rare piece of work and he was glad his mother hadn't married him and given Nick his last name. Even though his Gautier grandparents didn't want anything to do with them, he still preferred having their name to Adarian's.

Malachai. Heck, he didn't even like the way it sounded. Bleh.

Nick raised his voice to speak so that they'd hear him. "I'd rather be short, fat, and ugly than take after that man."

His mother sighed. "That man is your father and you're supposed to be asleep, young man. Not listening in on our private conversation."

What did she expect when all that separated them was a thin blue blanket? "And you're not supposed to be talking about me where I can hear it. You always told me that was rude."

They laughed.

"Go to sleep, Nick."

Go to sleep, Nick, he mouthed, mocking an order that was easier said than done. Especially since his pain meds had worn off and his shoulder was throbbing like fire again. But he didn't want to take any more. That stuff made him too groggy and ill feeling. He'd rather hurt than be a zombie.

Besides, if he acted like a zombie, Bubba might mistake him for a hallucination and shoot him.

Rule One, boy: shoot first then ask questions.

Rule Two: Double tap just for good measure. Better safe than sorry.

Nick smiled at Bubba's laws until he looked up at their stained ceiling and wondered just how miserable tomorrow would be at school.

Blinking back the agony, he pulled Nekoda's Nintendo out of his front pocket. He didn't know why, but just touching it made him feel better. Like he had someone in the world watching out for him.

How stupid was that?

He turned it on and kept the sound off. His mom had no idea he had this. She'd probably flip out if she did and he couldn't really play it with only one hand anyway. Still, he liked the thought of having it. It made him feel special. Like he was connected to someone not related to him.

Like a girl might actually like him as something more than just a friend.

He wanted the courage to ask her to go and just have a beignet with him after school. But so far he hadn't been able to do much more than thank her for checking on him while he'd been in the hospital—which she'd done every time she had a shift. He'd looked forward to each and every one of those visits like a starving beggar getting his one meal a day.

It was hard, man, to get up the courage to ask her something so personal. He didn't want to be rejected and he knew better than to reach for the stars—which was what she was. A bright, perfect star who made him laugh whenever she came near.

And he was a loser. Dont put yourself out there unless you want to get shot down. He'd been taken down enough by his classmates; he wasn't about to give Kody the chance to kick his teeth in. At this point, he was lucky she'd even talked to him in the hospital. No doubt tomorrow she'd be just like all the other cool, rich kids and pretend he was invisible.

Rolling his eyes at his own stupidity for even considering the thought of asking her out, he shut down the Nintendo and put it back in his pocket. Tomorrow he'd have to face the demon principal and the cretins of his school. To do that, he needed rest.

And maybe a flamethrower or two.

Nick was finishing up the leftover cake he'd eaten for breakfast when a knock at the door startled him. Since his mom and all of her friends except Menyara worked until dawn, he wasn't used to early morning visitors.

His mom went to open the door. In this neighborhood, he expected it to be cops wanting to know about something that'd happened while they slept.

What was there shocked him to the core of his being.

It was Brynna Addams dressed in a pretty blue dress and cream sweater. With her dark hair held back from her face by a thin lacy headband, she looked like an absolute angel. One that didn't belong in the run-down crap hole that was their house.

"Hi, Mrs. Gautier. I'm Brynna—the friend of Nick's from school who's been leaving his assignments at the hospital desk. Since it's his first day back and all, my brother and I wanted to give him a ride ... if that's okay with you?"

His mother opened and closed her mouth as if she was as stunned by their offer as he was. Turning around, she met his startled gaze. "You know a Brynna?"

Heat exploded across his face, partly because he was embarrassed by their shabby house when he was sure Brynna had never seen anything so run-down in her life and partly because his mother had a weird look on her face that he didn't quite understand while she stood barely dressed in an open doorway. "Urn, yeah."

"You want them to take you to school?"

"I guess so." His stock answer anytime he was unsure of something.

He picked his backpack up from the floor but before he could shrug it over his uninjured shoulder, Brynna took it from him.

"Let me carry it. You're still healing."

Nick tightened his grip as he pulled it back. "No, thanks. I'm not having a girl carry my stuff. Wouldn't be right." And it would make him look like a mega wimp.

He could tell Brynna wanted to argue, but with a nod, she stepped back and let go of his patched and shoddy secondhand bag.

His mom moved forward to turn down the collar of the oh so lovely blue Hawaiian shirt he wore—at least this one wasn't so foul it glowed in the dark. "You have a good day, baby."

Yeah ... She should have just burped him while she was at it. Anything to shoot down his manhood.

Without a word, he gave her a quick hug since his dignity had already been shattered, then followed Brynna outside to where her brother waited for them in a new black Lexus SUV.

He let out a low whistle of appreciation. It was an obscenely nice ride. "You know, a car like that in this neighborhood —people gonna think you're both drug dealers."

Brynna laughed as she opened the door to the front seat and stepped back. Nick ignored her invitation to sit up front and opened the back door.

"You don't want to be in the front seat?"

He climbed into the backseat and shut the door before he answered. "No offense, I don't know your brother and I don't want anyone thinking anything funny about us. I'm not even sure why you guys are here. How did you know where I live?"

Brynna buckled herself in, next to her brother. "Kyrian told us. He's the one who had me drop your homework off while you were in the hospital so you wouldn't fall too far behind."

He froze. "Do what?"

"Kyrian Hunter?" she said. "Your new boss? He's an old family friend of ours and you'll see us around at his place from time to time. He asked if we could take you to school and watch out for you, so here we are. This is my brother Tad, by the way. Tad, say hi to Nick."

"Hi." Tad pulled away from the curb.

Nick finished buckling his seat belt as he glanced back and forth between Brynna, who was turned around in her seat to look at him, and her brother, who ignored them while he navigated morning traffic. Dang, Tad favored her a great deal. He was just taller and hairier.

Brynna's eyes sparkled with warmth but for all that, she wasn't anywhere near as spectacular to him as Kody was. Brynna was pretty. Kody was sizzling. "You're really going to like working for Kyrian. He's a great guy."

"If you say so."

She smiled. "So how's your shoulder feeling? You excited to be going back to school? Is your physical therapy really hard? Did you get all the assignments done that I left for you? The math was really hard, but if you need a tutor, we can arrange one for you until you catch up."

Nick felt assaulted by her barrage of rapidly fired questions and comments. She didn't even give him a chance to respond until the very end. "You always this chatty in the morning?"

Tad burst out laughing.

Brynna slapped her brother on the arm, her face red. "Stop that."

Tad grinned. "Nice to know I'm not the only one your perky morning attitude annoys. I told you it was too much for a man to bear."

Nick felt his own cheeks heat again. He hadn't meant to offend her. "I'm not annoyed by you, Brynna." He actually liked her a lot. "I'm just not used to people like you talking to me with this much interest. It's kind of creeping me out. Feel like I've stepped into an alternate reality or something. You keep this up and I'm going to start looking for Raccoon City vans or something."

Brynna frowned. "Raccoon what?"

Tad snorted. "It's from the game Resident Evil, doof." He looked at Nick through the rearview mirror. "You have to forgive her, Nick. She doesn't play much. Just gabs on the phone with all her vacuous, self-absorbed friends."

She slid an offended glare to her brother.

Nick mentally kicked himself. Why did I say that to her? I'm such an idiot. Here he sat in the nicest car he'd ever seen, riding to school with one of the prettiest girls in his class—one who was really decent—and he'd offended her.

I'm never going to have a girlfriend. I'm too stupid for one.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Tad pulled up to a nice house and honked.

Three seconds later, the front door opened and Casey Woods came running out in her full black and gold cheerleader outfit that hugged every curve on her body... and for a fourteen-year-old girl, she had a lot of curves—unlike the rest of their female classmates. Her long wavy dark hair was pulled back from her face with a black and gold bow.

A bright smile curled her lips as she ran to them.

Oh, crap...

She was Brynna's best friend and, up until he'd met Kody, the one girl at school he'd sell his soul to have as his girlfriend. Unfortunately, Casey didn't know he even existed.

Something brought brutally home as she opened the door to the car and paused with a frown on her beautiful face.

Brynna didn't miss a beat. "Morning, Case. You know Nick?

Casey turned her head to look at him from the corner of her eyes as if trying to remember him. "Should I?"

Yeah, why should you knowme? We only have four classes together... and he sat directly in front of her in two of them.

/ might as well be invisible.

Nick caught the sight of Tad rolling his eyes in the rearview mirror. "We're going to be late, Case. Get in or step back into your yard and close the door."

Tad's hostile tone caught him off guard. What magic pill did Tad take to be immune to her looks?

Glaring at him, Casey shrugged her Prada backpack off and tossed it into the SUV before she climbed in and sat next to Nick.

Why didnt I sit up front with Tad? Why, Lord, why?

Casey scowled at Brynna. "So is he like a new student or something? Does he speak English?"

Brynna slid a puzzled stare to Nick. "Nick's been going to school with us for the last three years."

"Oh ... well, I'm in all advanced classes."

Nick bit back a snort at her snotty comment. What am I? Special ed?

Then again, at the moment, he felt like this was the short bus to hell and that he had a reserved seat on it.

Brynna opened her mouth to say something else, but Nick held his hand up to stop her from correcting Casey's mistaken conclusions about him before Casey made him feel any more worthless. "So, Tad, how 'bout them Saints?"

Tad laughed at his switch in topic. "You know, Gautier, you might actually grow on me."

"Yeah, that's me. Kudzu Gautier."

Casey didn't get it, but Brynna did. Obviously the tenacious vine must have invaded Brynna's yard and taken it over. "What's kudzu?" Casey asked. Tad ignored her. "What the ..."