The final book in J. Bengtsson’s Cake series is out this week—an emotional second chance romance featuring the youngest McKallister sibling, Grace—and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
Not My Hero
A hand jostled my shoulder, startling me out of a restless slumber. I gasped, jolting upright as confusion took hold.
“Shhh. It’s all right, Grace,” Elliott soothed. “You were whimpering in your sleep. You’re safe. It was just a dream.”
“It… it was?” I asked, my voice almost childlike in its optimism. If Elliott was to be believed, then the horror in my head had never happened, and Quinn was not currently lying on an operating table with doctors diligently working to save his life. “It was all a dream?”
Elliott’s eyes widened, and he stuttered, “No, I mean… it’s not, um… no… it did happen, but… uh…”
I snapped back into my hard plastic chair, the events of the evening flooding back with a vengeance. What was I thinking? Of course it was real. I’d watched it happen with my own two eyes. The first pops had gone largely unnoticed. Concerts were deafening beasts to begin with—the music, the high decibels, the screams—some so piercing they rang in the ears for days. From where I’d been seated, alongside the stage in an area reserved for family, it made sense that I was unaware of the horror unfolding behind me … until it arrived at center stage. That was when the crowd surged forward, when the music abruptly cut out, and when my absolute favorite brother in the entire world went down in a hail of gunfire.
“… but Quinn’s a fighter,” Elliott said. “He’ll pull through this. You know he will.”
No, I didn’t. This wasn’t a sprained ankle. The blood I’d been covered in earlier was Quinn’s, and while I’d gratefully accepted the change of clothes from my sister, Emma, Quinn’s girl Jess had respectfully declined. Like Jackie Kennedy before her, she had chosen to remain in her blood-soaked clothing to show the world what they had done. Not that anyone would blame her for her defiance given that Jess had just gotten engaged to my brother as he lay dying in her arms.
Elliott continued to try and comfort me by massaging my neck and speaking soothing words of reassurance in my ear. Normally I appreciated his calm, cool head but not today. Even his touch made me squirm.
I held up a hand. “No offense, but please stop talking.”
Elliott stiffened as he took immediate offense. “I’m just trying to be supportive.”
“Well, you’re not,” I clipped him off, scowling as my lower lip began to shudder. This wasn’t like me. I was known for being easy-going and weep-resistant. I had never found tears personally beneficial. It came down to the whole quantum theory—if a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear, does it make a sound?
Well, the same could be applied to lastborn children. While firstborns were falling off the jungle gym into the arms of their protective parents, I just fell. By the time I was born, the last of seven children, there just wasn’t a lot of sympathy left for my scrapes, bruises, and tears. As a result, if little-girl me face-planted or scuffed my knee, there would be no fussing over the wound. No Hello Kitty Band-Aids. No kissing and making it better. Instead of first aid, I got…well, a standing ovation.
Oh, the attention I would receive for a sniffle-free ounce of blood! My father would beam. My brothers would line up to slap me some high fives. No wonder I began to equate pain with a jolly good time. Sometimes I even purposely wiped out just to feel the love.
No doubt that early indoctrination inspired the daredevil in me. I was the tiny girl with loose strawberry blonde curls spilling out from under her helmet dropping into a half-pipe at the skate park while dressed in a pink tutu and camouflage knee pads. The wide-eyed kindergartener who stayed up way past her bedtime to watch scary movies with her older siblings. The determined kid sister who stood on her tippy-toes at the amusement park in hopes of clearing the height restrictions to ride the rollercoaster with the rest of her long-legged family.
But right now, I was none of the above. I’d been backed into a corner, and if anyone dared cross me in this state of mind, they could expect me to come up slashing. And that included my boyfriend of six months. He was one bad decision away from living a lonely, sterile life.
The wounded expression on Elliott’s face forced me to clamp down on my lower lip which, quite honestly, was the only thing keeping me from biting his head off. I knew I was being unreasonable—mean, even—but I just couldn’t with him. Not right now. Not after his tone-deaf comedy act earlier in the day—throwing shade on Quinn right before the start of the concert.
“Watch him choke,” he’d said. “Get up there, open his mouth, and be like uh… uh… uh.”
Elliott had thought he was so funny, cracking himself up, but I hadn’t found it hilarious. Normally, I was up for a good laugh, but not at the expense of my family. And talk about a joke not aging well! An hour after the callous comment was made, Quinn was up on the same stage Elliott predicted he’d choke on— lying in a pool of his own blood.
“Hey,” Elliott said, drawing in a breath to get him through the chore of dealing with little ol’ unreasonable me. He entwined his fingers in mine and gave them a reassuring squeeze. “I know you’re scared, but everything will be all right. I promise.”
He leaned in and kissed my cheek. It was meant as a sweet and reassuring gesture, but again, I wasn’t feeling it. A shiver of fury swept through me. How dare he offer his upbeat support? His empty promises? I knew I was being irrational and that I might even owe him my life—he’d covered my body with his when the shots rang out—but I still felt a strange disconnect. Like he was somehow trespassing on this intensely personal moment in my life. Like he shouldn’t even be here, taking part in my family’s misery. It was ours alone, for no one else to see. Playing hero didn’t earn Elliott his stripes. If there was one thing us McKallisters did well, it was to close ranks when tragedy struck. You were either in by way of DNA or you were in by holding on to your chosen McKallister for dear life. My sister-in-law Casey was one of those hardened survivors. She’d outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted my labor-intensive brother Jake, thereby paying her dues and earning her place in the inner circle. And then there were Finn and Kenzie and Sam and Jess, all had taken on a sibling and lived to tell about it. They could stay.
But what about Elliott? Where were his bleeding knuckles? His tested soul? Yes, he’d protected me in the arena, but I hadn’t asked him too. Hadn’t even wanted him to. Yet, once my father discovered what he’d done, he’d proclaimed Elliott king and now I’d have to deal with the trickle-down effect of my entire family bowing down at his feet.
Meeting Elliott’s eyes, I calmly untangled my fingers from his and used the back of that same hand to wipe his kiss right off my cheek. He winced, clearly shocked by my vindictiveness. Not that I blamed him. I’d never given him any indication that, during times of stress, I might shape-shift into a honey badger. Yet here we were, the truth finally revealed. I was a self-serving carnivore, and if he didn’t get out of the way, he’d become my prey.
Elliott shook his head, confused. “Why are you acting like this?”
Why? Why was I acting like this? Did I need to spell it out? Did I need to remind him that a disgruntled employee of the music arena Quinn was playing at tonight had taken out his rage on both concertgoers and the band performing up on the stage—the band my brother was fronting. Elliott couldn’t understand the glue that bonded my family. He was lukewarm with his own. Their suffering was not his. But for me, my family was my whole world, and Quinn was at the center. He was the scared little boy who’d huddled under the bed tent with Emma and me when Jake’s nightly screams wouldn’t let us sleep. And he was the big brother who’d vowed to keep me safe by not letting go of my tiny baby hand when we were out in public. Quinn had grown into my confidant. My protector. My biggest fan, always seeing the potential in me, in my music, even when I doubted myself.
And I might lose him tonight.
Shivers rocked me. Quinn couldn’t die. I had no roadmap to follow without his haphazard navigation skills leading the way. Why him? Why now? It was all so senseless. This was supposed to be Quinn’s big break, his chance to prove to the world he was every bit as good as the legendary brother he’d been chasing after his whole life. But now he might never get that chance. He might very well die in his prime. Forever young. Forever talented. Forever missed.
I lashed out at Elliott for his insensitive question. “I’m acting like this because I’m angry and irrational, and I’m going to take it out on whoever ventures into my space. I warned you, Elliott. I put myself in a timeout away from everyone else for a reason. You’re the one who followed me here, so now you can’t complain when you get clawed.”
Elliott leaned away, unfamiliar with this deviant version of me. Most people were. I put on a good act. Honestly, it wasn’t even an act. Ninety-nine percent of the time I was a rough and tumble, bubbly little sister with the world’s best hug. When I was a baby, my older siblings lined up to get a piece of the cuddle action. I was like a human sloth, and when I wanted, I could go from one person to another with my feet never touching the ground.
My reputation for purity and light followed me into adulthood, no one remotely suspecting that I was hiding one tiny percent of pitch darkness inside. That was what fueled my writing and what sparked the anger I’d just unleashed on Elliott. Every developing talent needed an origin story, and oh boy, did I have one. Sometimes I wondered if Fate had never linked eyes with mine, had never exchanged a friendly wave, and had never patted me on the head and spoken those damning words, would I be the songwriter I was today?
With a swiftness that startled me, I could barely breathe, and teardrops slipped down my cheeks faster than I could wipe them away. I turned my back on Elliott, not wanting him to see my pain. I didn’t do heartbreak in the company of others… unless those others shared my last name.
I felt a shadow fall over me. Elliott was on his feet.
“Right. Obviously, you don’t want me here, so I’ll give you your space,” he said, averting his gaze like a browbeaten dog.
I watched him weave a path around the seats in the waiting room and exit out the glass door. I knew I should go after him, let him try to comfort me, but shamelessly, I was happy he was gone. A weight had been lifted off me, though really, I shouldn’t have felt that way. Elliott was my boyfriend, the man I’d fallen for at the little corner café in London. Our first meeting had cliché TV-movie cuteness written all over it. I was the newly arrived American starting her semester abroad, and he was the awkwardly charming Brit five years my senior. Elliott had accidentally grabbed my coffee off the counter, and seconds before pressing it to his lips, I’d playfully stopped him with my best Law and Order impersonation. ‘Sir, put the coffee cup down and slowly step away from the counter.’
We’d shared a good laugh—a great one, even—and that led to a common table at the café followed by a dinner invitation. Elliott wasn’t the sporty type of guy I normally gravitated toward, but his unassuming confidence and quick wit had won me over that day. I came to adore his out-of-fashion, round-rimmed glasses and the tousled, floppy brown hair he was constantly redirecting off his face. What made our instant connection all that more meaningful was that he’d fallen for me even before knowing my last name.
Everything had been damn near flawless until the two of us flew back to Los Angeles and took up residence in my parents’ house. I’d noticed a change in Elliott almost from the beginning. Or maybe it was me? Whoever was to blame, our downward spiral had begun then, even if I hadn’t been willing to admit it to myself. Elliott was textbook perfect for me. At least, that was what every person in my family was saying. He was a man to settle down and start a family with. I’d never said that was what I wanted, but still, the implication was there. If I couldn’t hold on to a guy like him, what hope was there for me?
Needing to clear my head, I zeroed in on the most perfect distraction a girl could ask for—my famous brother, Jake. There was no one more fascinating to me. Not only was Jake a world-renowned musician, he was also a warrior of the highest degree. The survivor of a childhood stranger abduction, he’d been imprisoned in hell and had resorted to extreme measures to save himself—only to spend the years following trying to silence the horror in his head.
He’d always been a mystery to me. Bits and pieces of our lives intersected, but we’d never really connected. Of all the siblings, we were the furthest apart. With nine years and a kidnapping between us, Jake and I were like two parallel lines moving in tandem. While he’d left the nest early to begin his celebrated music career, I was still at home honing my culinary skills on an Easy Bake oven. While he was amassing a fortune, I was earning the majority of my income from the tooth fairy. And while Jake traveled the world in customized tour buses, my main mode of transportation was in the backseat of Mom’s minivan strapped into a forward-facing booster seat.
Yet despite the distance between us, Jake was the only person in the world who knew about my one percent darkness. Not that he remembered. I’d confessed it to him on what I’d believed to be his deathbed. Weeks into a coma, Jake had served as a silent, non-judgmental sounding board for me to unload my ultimate truth. And while Jake had not retained any of the one-sided conversation, I was comforted just knowing my secret was in his head somewhere, relieving me of having to carry the burden alone.
Jake shifted his gaze, catching me in the act of shamelessly invading his privacy. Fringe strands of hair tumbled over his famous eyes, partially shielding them from view. He was still wearing his stage outfit: black leather pants, a black tank that clung to him while showcasing his tatted arms, and a silver chain that dipped from his belt buckle to the back right pocket. In a catastrophic turn of events, Jake had been performing on his own stage in Arlington at the exact same time that his newbie rocker brother, performing in Los Angeles, got gunned down on his.
Neither brother finished their concert tonight.
To my surprise, Jake held me in his stare, and because it was such a rare occurrence, I didn’t dare look away. Slowly his eyes shifted to the door Elliott had just walked out of and then back to me, openly letting it be known he’d seen the kiss-wiping fiasco. I offered up a weak smile and shrugged, too emotionally drained to make excuses for my behavior.
An endearing lop-sided smile hitched the corner of Jake’s lips as he subtly brushed the tip of his nose with his pointer finger two times. My eyes widened and then I laughed, actually laughed in the midst of all the misery. See, before tragedy ripped his world apart, Jake had once been a typical big brother who teased his little sister. When we were just kids, he’d convinced me that tapping the tip of the nose twice meant “I love you.” I’d apparently started double-tapping my nose to family members and strangers alike, forcing my worried parents to take me to a child psychologist and have me evaluated for a disorder.
Our double-tap had become family folklore, brought up now and again for a good laugh, and it just occurred to me that it might’ve been the last time Jake had told me he loved me. His simple gesture settled my aching heart and gave me the strength I needed to see this horrible day through. I smiled and double-tapped my nose right back at him. Jake nodded once before returning his head to his hands and resuming the restless leg bounce.
A movement at the door caught my attention, and I looked over, expecting Elliott to walk back through. But it wasn’t him. My back straightened into a steel rod.
Oh my god. It was him.
I bolted to my feet, a breath catching in my throat. In shock and awe, I stared at the man standing on the other side of the doorway. That was the place he’d always been: on the other side. Alone. Cast out by society. But I’d taken him in. I’d loved him and nurtured him and given him a home inside my heart. I’d given him others things, too—like, all of me. He was my first love, and if my heart had only had its way, he would’ve been my last.
He was the one who got away, the OG owner of my former lovesick, teenaged heart. Our eyes locked from across the room, and instantly, those long years of pining over a man I couldn’t have came to a screeching halt. He was here, in the flesh. Somehow the universe had understood what I needed at the exact moment I needed it.
I barely recognized the intoxicating boy he’d once been. It was as if the years had zapped him of his originality. He looked like a neglected flower pulled from the dirt and tossed in the trash. His hair, once the most vibrant and unique part about him, was long and soiled, dangling over his handsome face like a curtain, the only openings where the strands caught in his overgrown beard. His normally sun-scorched skin was so pale it appeared almost translucent under the harsh florescent lighting. And his eyes—his beautiful, soulful brown eyes—were nothing but sunken, red-rimmed misery. I thought I’d seen him at his worst—a streetwise runaway surviving with only the clothes on his back—but I was wrong.
He was worse off now. So much worse. Yet despite his obvious unraveling, he’d still come for me, and I knew why. He’d seen what happened on the news. He was checking up on me, making sure I was alive. Because he loved me. He always had. We could’ve been so good together had he not chosen her over me. But I was willing to overlook the past because I needed him now. Not Elliott. Not my mom or my dad. Not even Jake and his love taps.
No, I needed him. Rory Higgins.
My drummer boy.