Six years ago . . .
Nicolette Besson was going to die.
She was seriously going to drown herself if the de Vincent brothers didn’t leave the veranda. Like, hold her own head underwater and never come back up, because there was no way in heck she was going to let them see her in her new bathing suit.
She peered over the edge of the pool. There was a good chance the brothers didn’t even know she was in the pool since she was on her knees in the shallow end, hiding like an idiot.
What were they even doing over there, all huddled together, whispering? Knowing them, they were probably up to no good whatsoever.
If her daddy knew they were out here, all crowded together like they were, with Lucian, as always, in the middle of the huddle, he’d say they were up to shenanigans.
Whatever shenanigans meant.
Devlin was the oldest de Vincent, and Gabriel was the middle one. Lucian was the youngest of the brothers, and he was always in trouble. Always. Especially since their momma died and their sister disappeared. Devlin and Gabriel looked just like their father, dark haired and intense, but Lucian and his twin took after their mother.
She really hoped Lucian’s friend wasn’t with them. Parker Harrington gave her the creeps. He was always . . . staring at her. Which was weird, because he wasn’t particularly nice to her. Sometimes he stared at her like she wasn’t worthy to be sharing the same air as him, and other times, he stared at her like . . .
Nikki shuddered, not wanting to think about that.
She bit down on her lip as the cement edge of the pool practically burned her fingers. When were they going to leave? Her mom would be done in the kitchen soon and she’d have to get out of the pool and then they’d see her and she would just die.
Gosh, why in the world did she ever get in this pool? She couldn’t even swim, but everything had been so hot and sticky. And she’d been bored sitting in one of the many rooms in the mansion, not touching anything or going anywhere because Mr. de Vincent was home.
Mr. de Vincent didn’t like noise of any kind, and all Nikki did was make noise. Lots of it. Sometimes she just got excited and forgot where she was. Sitting quietly was not how she wanted to spend her summer vacation from school. Ugh. They had—
Lucian suddenly threw his head back, laughing wildly. The sound startled her and she felt her lips twitch. Lucian had the best laugh. It always sounded like he was seconds away from something crazy happening—something that would most likely upset his father and make her parents shake their heads fondly.
What were they doing?
Her gaze shifted to Devlin. He was standing there, staring at Lucian with a blank face. Gabe was grinning, though, and shaking his head while Lucian made weird gestures with his hands.
Gabe was always grinning.
Nikki wondered if Gabe had brought her any spare wood back from his workshop. He hadn’t in a while and her fingers were itching to make use of the new woodcarving set her parents had gotten her for Christmas. She was just learning how to make beads out of the wood, the hollowed-out kind she could force string through to make a necklace or bracelet. She could ask Gabe now, but then he’d see her in the pool, and she couldn’t let that happen.
If there was one person she did not want to see her in her bathing suit, it was Gabe.
Inching over the floor of the pool, she was careful and quiet as the water steadily rose around her. A sudden gust of wind rocked the patio umbrella and the scent of roses from the nearby garden surrounded her. The sky was starting to turn gray and mean looking toward the south. A storm was coming. Great. Maybe she wouldn’t have to drown herself. Maybe she’d get lucky and lightning would take her out.
Because she was not letting them see her in her stupid, too-big one-piece Mom bought from the local Kmart.
The de Vincents were like three brothers to her—older brothers. Like waaay older. Well, Gabe and Lucian treated her like a sister. Not Devlin, though. He acted like she didn’t exist, and that was just fine by her, because Devlin didn’t like noise either and he never smiled. Like ever.
Even though Nikki had just turned sixteen, she wasn’t even sure how she felt about boys other than the fact she found most of them annoying. She heard her momma once telling her daddy that she was a late bloomer. Nikki rolled her eyes. She wasn’t a stupid flower or something.
But the de Vincents were different. They weren’t boys in any real sense of the word. And everyone Nikki knew found them attractive. After all, her best friend’s older sister had supposedly hooked up with Lucian and was now totally obsessed with him.
Not that Nikki would ever admit this, but she always thought Gabe was sooo hot. It was because of the hair. He wore it longer than his brothers, to his shoulders, and it looked thick and soft, and made her want to do weird things, like touch it.
Randomly touching his hair would be super weird.
And she super doubted he’d appreciate that.
Nikki flushed as she found herself staring at Gabe. He was wearing a pair of jeans and a white shirt, and he was barefoot even though the pavers had to be steaming hot under his feet.
She kind of thought he had nice feet.
Gabe had a nice laugh, too. He also had a nice smile. One that always made Nikki smile. And he was kind. He always sat and asked her how school was or what she and her friends were up to. He showed her how to turn a square piece of wood into something amazing. He was a friend to her despite the fact he probably had a ton of better stuff to do.
The three brothers were very different. Devlin was the cold one. Lucian was the crazy one. And Gabe was just . . .
Nikki bit back a sigh.
He was just, well, everything.
Off in the distance, she heard the rumble of the nearing storm and she knew the weather could turn bad quick, but she stayed in the pool, her gaze glued to Gabe.
He never treated her like she was inferior because her parents were the help, like some of their ignorant, snobby friends did whenever they were over at the house throughout the years. Like Parker did. Like Devlin often did whenever he chose to actually acknowledge her.
She knew Gabe had a serious girlfriend when he’d been away at college, because he’d brought her home once, over Christmas a few years ago. Her name was Emma and she was beautiful and nice and Nikki just—she just hated her.
Gabe and Emma weren’t together anymore.
Nikki smiled to herself.
Continuing to creep along the edge of the pool, she stopped when she felt the bottom start to dip. The pool got deep quick, so she had to be careful unless she seriously wanted to drown. So she held onto the edge of the pool with her hands, moving further into the pool, closer to the diving board she’d only ever seen Lucian and Gabe use. They’d throw themselves off it, showing no fear.
Nikki wanted to do that. Have no fear like—
The entire world flashed an intense white as lightning struck the ground nearby. A crack of thunder reverberated, sending a chill of fear straight down her spine. She shrieked as the sky ripped open. Heavy rain poured, pounding off the patio surrounding the pool and the water.
Forget staying in the pool!
Scrambling along the side, she started to lift herself up with her arms. Her wide-eyed gaze whipped around as another bolt of lightning struck the ground, not too far from the pool.
The brothers turned right then, just as she managed to get one scrawny leg out of the pool and onto the slippery patio.
Gabe stepped forward, toward the edge of the veranda, where he was all dry and safe. “Nic?”
She gasped as her eyes met his. Oh no. Not only was she in her bathing suit, she looked like a drowned cat trying to climb her way out of the pool! She could seriously just die—
Thunder exploded again. It sounded like the sky was falling all around her. Then it happened, so fast that one second her foot was slipping and then the next thing she knew water was swallowing her whole.
Shock robbed her of the ability to think. Too caught off guard to close her mouth, she dragged in mouthfuls of water as she sunk into the pool and the water churned above her.
Her lungs burned and wheezed as she squeezed her eyes tight. Trying to resurface but only seeming to slip further down, panic overtook as she flailed underwater. Her butt hit the bottom of the pool, the impact soft but jarring.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she shook her head frantically as the burn in her chest crawled up her throat and along the back of her skull. She felt weird. Like a thousand fire ants were marching along her skin and—