I always kicked Jensen’s ass at Mario Kart.
The dining room was only used for special occasions—birthdays and holidays. I walked down the short hallway that led to the kitchen, where I’d spent many evenings scarfing down pizza and sloppy joes.
Framed pictures lined the hall, most of them of Jensen’s older brother Jonathan. I stopped, my gaze traveling over the photos of the good-looking older boy in high school pictures and random family photos.
God, Jensen looked so much like him, down to the strong jaw and full, expressive lips.
I glanced over the rest of the photos, one in particular catching my attention. An ache pierced my chest as my gaze traveled over the picture. It was Christmas, taken several years ago, when we’d just started middle school.
Gavin with his glasses, vaguely resembling Harry Potter, grinned at the camera. Jensen, taller than the rest of us, had his long arms wrapped around my shoulders. I wasn’t looking at the camera. Nope. I’d been staring up at Jensen. And beside me was Penn. He had a wreath around his neck, his head poking out of the holly berries and twigs.
“Remember that Christmas? Gavin and Penn had a cranberry sauce eating contest. Both of them ended up eating so much that when they started hurling it back up, we thought they were dying.”
Swallowing the knot in my throat, I turned at the sound of Jensen’s voice. My lips parted. He stood there, tugging the sleeves out of a shirt, jeans hung low on his hips, revealing those fascinating indents and that amazing stomach of his. His hair was still wet, and curls clung to his forehead.
I looked away quickly, feeling my cheeks burn, which was ridiculous considering what we had shared. “That was fast.”
“I’m quick like that.” Grinning, he sauntered past me. “Want something to eat? I think we have Frosted Flakes. You still eat them?”
“Yeah.” I followed him into the roomy kitchen that was different from when we were kids. It had been completely renovated, country style, with white cabinets and dark floors. I hopped up onto a barstool at the island.
He pulled the shirt on over his head and then set about making breakfast. Within minutes, a bowl of sugary flakes were set in front of me. “I think we need to let the police know about the bird.”
“So you don’t think it was a coincidence?” That was a stupid question, but I guess I was holding out hope that it was. Because if it wasn’t a coincidence, there was a high likelihood that someone had been out on the tree, staring into my bedroom, watching us. There was enough moonlight to see what was happening.
I felt sick.
He propped his hip against the island, cradling his bowl of cereal. “I don’t know, but why take any chances?”
“Agreed,” I murmured, watching the flakes float in the milk. “I’ll call Trooper Ritter on the way to school. He left me his number.” Glancing up, I wasn’t surprised to see he’d already finished off his cereal. “I just don’t understand why someone would do this.”
Or maybe I didn’t want to understand why.
Jensen was quiet as he washed out his bowl and placed it in the dishwasher. “Do people ever have a reason for doing things like this?”
Words flew to the tip of my tongue, and I wanted to swallow them back, but I couldn’t. “I don’t think this is something random. Like our town suddenly drew the interest of a serial killer,” I said, watching the muscles tense under the back of his shirt. “And I know you don’t think that either.”
“I don’t.” He turned around, leaning back against the counter. “I just don’t want to scare you.”
“I’m already scared,” I admitted in a whisper.
His striking face tightened. “I know. And I hate that.”
“But that doesn’t change anything. All of this is related. I know it is.”
He shook his head as his jaw worked. “But what? You weren’t friends with Vee and Monica. Other than living in the same town and going to the same school, you don’t have anything in common.”
I thought about the list of names I’d thrown together in my head, and as I stared at him, a sick feeling settled in the pit of my stomach. “But we do.”
Jensen frowned. “How?”
It took a lot to say the name. “Penn.”
He stared at me, his eyes widening slightly. “What?”
A chill took hold. “Penn loved cardinals. Even you pointed that out. Vee and Monica used to pick on Penn, remember? In middle school, they terrorized him. So did Wendy. And Brock and Mason—”
“Ella.” Jensen pushed off the counter, thrusting a hand through his damp hair.
“And that day?” I continued, ignoring his warning. “We were just as bad as them. You know we were. You and I—”
“Stop.” Jensen crossed the room, gripping my shoulders. A muscle ticked along his jaw. “I don’t know what’s happening, but it has nothing to do with the past, and Penn is in the past. This has nothing to do with him. It can’t, Ella.”
I met his pale stare. “Explain the cardinals then. Why them?”
“Who knows? But it can’t be about him.” His hands slipped over my shoulders as he took a step back. “Penn is dead, Ella.”
I shot to my feet, suddenly wishing I hadn’t said anything. I wheeled around, heading for the foyer. “We should leave.”
“No.” Jensen caught up to me, blocking the door to the hall. “I know you’ve let guilt eat up your life the last four years. I know that’s why you started seeing the therapist.”
My stomach dropped. How had he known about Dr. Oliver? He’d still lived here and we’d still talked at that point, but I hadn’t told him. Gavin only found out once we started dating in high school.
“And now this guilt has warped into something else. How could it be about Penn? He’s been dead for four years.”
“I know how long he’s been dead,” I snapped, anger rushing to the surface.
His pale eyes flashed a deeper blue. “Then how in the world can this be about him?”
“I don’t know!” I shouted, dragging in a deep breath. “Maybe someone is paying us back for what they did—for what we did!”
Jensen drew back as if I’d slapped him. He stared at me. “We didn’t do anything.”
A harsh, short laugh escaped me. “How can you say that? Because we did, Jensen. Gavin told us not to, that Penn wouldn’t be okay with it, but we didn’t listen.”
“Oh my God . . .” He shook his head as he stared down at me. Varying degrees of horror and disbelief flickered across his face. “You think . . . ?”
He didn’t have to finish that sentence, because I knew where it was heading, and so did he. I didn’t look away as I struggled with my next breath.
Jensen snapped forward, clutching my cheeks once again. His wide gaze searched mine as he held me in place. “We didn’t kill Penn, Ella.”
I sucked in a breath. “We didn’t?”
Mentioning Penn was a conversation killer.
Jensen was stoic as he drove me to school, and we ended up having to park in the back of the lot. Rays of sun were just starting to break through the thick, gray clouds, lifting some of the chill in the air.
I walked ahead of Jensen, angry with him and with myself. I knew it sounded crazy, that anything happening today would have something to do with Penn, but Jensen hadn’t needed to look at me with such pity either.
I shouldn’t have said anything. And I shouldn’t have let him stay last night, sleep in my bed, and everything that had happened in that bed.
Jensen caught up to me when I reached the door. Catching my arm, he tugged me out of the path of others. Several students stared in our direction with curious looks.
“What?” I asked, trying to pull my arm free.
His eyes narrowed. “I’m just letting you know that there are a lot of things we still need to talk about.”
“I don’t want to talk about Penn—”
“Not him. Not any of that.” His hand slid up to my elbow as he dipped his head to mine. “I’m talking about us.”