When Markus finally made his move, it wasn’t at all what I expected. And believe me, I’d had plenty of time to come up with all sorts of expectations.
I didn’t think I’d have any, at first. Time, that is. Right after he told me he intended to help me achieve my list of goals in exchange for keeping quiet about my list, he didn’t even give me a chance to recover from my shock. Instead, he made it worse by reaching up and brushing my lower lip with his thumb. It was a light, barely-there touch, but it caused me to close my mouth with a click, and I winced when I ended up biting my tongue.
The pain snapped me back to my senses. My chair scraped against the floor as I stood up as well, facing him across the table with the narrow-eyed glare that every member of the Demolition Crew knew meant they were in serious trouble. “You—don’t get cute with me, you little brat,” I growled.
But instead of backing down like he and my brothers had always done before, he only leaned closer until all I could see were his gray eyes glinting in the shadow and his insolent smile. “Oh, I aim to do more than that with you, Ate Sienna. Going by your list, a lot more.”
“If this is your idea of a joke…”
He shrugged. “That’s up to you, isn’t it? Of course, if it does turn out to be a joke, then it would be entirely on you, wouldn’t you think?” he added silkily.
I stared at him, torn between sinking dismay and horrified fascination. This was the cheerful, slightly weird-looking kid my brothers had befriended? The same kid whose hand I’d held when crossing the street, whose sweat-soaked shirts I’d changed, whose meals I’d cooked and homework I’d checked together with my brothers’? The one I’d rushed to the nearest clinic along with the twins and later chewed out for being a reckless idiot after the three of them had gotten into a fight with some neighborhood boys? The one I’d baked birthday cakes for, the one I’d passed love letters on to other girls for, the one whose whining about the tortuous boredom of schoolwork I’d listened to for hours on end?
What—what the hell happened here?
My head spun as I struggled to reconcile nearly a decade’s worth of memories of that kid with this alarming stranger who was standing altogether too close and who knew altogether too much. “When did you become so devious?” I breathed, shaking my head in wonder.
Some emotion flickered in his eyes, but was gone before I could make sense of it. “You’re afraid, aren’t you?”
“What?!” I spluttered. “That’s ridiculous. What do I have to be afraid of? You?”
“No. You’re afraid of yourself.” A chill ran through me as his smile turned positively demonic. “You’re afraid that after this, you’ll stop seeing me as just another one of your little brothers and start seeing me as a guy. And you, Ate Sienna, don’t know how to handle that.”
Unaccustomed heat flooded my face, which, to my irritation, he seemed to take as a sign that he was correct in his assessment. I opened my mouth, ready to douse his delusions with a bucket of ice water—or better yet, a bucket of bleach—but before I could say anything, the voices coming from upstairs grew louder. He drew away and turned toward Arianne and Shelly, who were coming down the stairs with their bags, followed by the twins.
“Hmm? You guys are done already?” he inquired.
Arianne gave him a strange look. “No. We still have to work on the science project next week.”
“Your car’s here, dummy. Didn’t you hear it?” Shelly said over her shoulder as she placed a tray of glasses beside the sink, while Arianne rinsed out the pan she’d baked the brownies in.
Markus rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Nope, sorry. Ate Sienna and I were talking,” he responded, as if we’d been chatting about something completely innocuous, like gossip or the weather or something. I sank back down into my chair, feeling weak all at once, and I barely kept from flinching when Arianne gasped. “Ate, the shirt fell.”
Sure enough, the shirt I’d been folding had slid off the table and fallen between my feet. I reached down to pick it up, using this as an excuse to keep from looking anyone in the face.
“We’re going now, Ate. Thanks for having us over,” Arianne spoke up. I forced myself to look up into her sweet face and her wavy brown mop of hair and, to my paranoid eyes, her curious stare. “And, um, what you said a while back…”
I ransacked through my memories of the previous hours. “Oh. Yeah. Try reducing the amount of sugar in those brownies to just three-fourths of a cup.”
Arianne beamed. “Okay, I will. Thanks.”
“See you, Ate.” Shelly came over, ponytail bouncing, and hooked her arm around her best friend’s. “I still say your brownies are fine the way they are,” she said to Arianne.
“Yeah, your brownies were great,” Daniel put in, and Shelly shot him a grateful look.
The Demolition Crew exited, with the twins escorting their guests to the waiting car outside and trading some final words. Markus was the last to leave, and before he did, he looked over his shoulder at me, his expression once again wholly and uncharacteristically serious. If anything, it flustered me even more than his sly teasing did.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything,” he promised. And then he was gone, leaving me to wonder what exactly he meant by that.