All In (The Naturals, #3) by Jennifer Lynn Barnes
For Anthony, my partner
in crime, now and always.
Anything can be counted. The hairs on her head. The words she’s spoken to you. The number of breaths she has left.
It’s beautiful, really. The numbers. The girl. The things you have planned.
The thing you’re destined to become.
New Year’s Eve fell on a Sunday. This would have been less problematic if my grandmother hadn’t considered “Thou shalt gather thy family for Sunday dinner” an inviolable commandment, or if Uncle Rio had not appointed himself the pourer of wine.
There was a lot of wine.
By the time we were clearing away the plates, it was pretty clear that none of the adults would be driving themselves home anytime soon. Given that my father had seven siblings, all of them married, several with kids a decade or more my senior, there were a lot of “adults.” As I carried a stack of plates into the kitchen, the dozen or so arguments brewing behind me were almost, but not quite, drowned out by the sound of boisterous laughter.
Viewed from the outside, it was chaos. But viewed with a profiler’s eye, it was simple. Easy to understand. Easy to make sense of. This was a family. The kind of family, the individual personalities—those were there in the details: shirts tucked and un-tucked, dishes chipped but handled with love.
“Cassie.” My great-uncle bestowed upon me a beatific, bleary-eyed smile as I came into the kitchen. “You miss your family, eh? You come back to visit your old Uncle Rio!”
As far as anyone in this house knew, I’d spent the past six months at a government-sponsored gifted program. Boarding school, more or less. Parts of that were true.
More or less.
“Bah.” My grandmother made a dismissive noise in Uncle Rio’s general direction as she took a stack of plates from my hands and transferred them to the sink. “Cassie did not come back for old fools who drink too much and talk too loud.” Nonna rolled up her sleeves and turned on the faucet. “She came back to see her nonna. To make up for not calling like she should.”
Two guilt trips, one stone. Uncle Rio remained largely unfazed. I, on the other hand, felt the intended twinge of guilt and joined Nonna at the sink. “Here,” I said. “Let me.”
Nonna harrumphed, but slid over. There was something comforting about the fact that she was exactly the same as she’d always been: part mother hen, part dictator, ruling her family with baked ziti and an iron fist.
But I’m not the same. I couldn’t dodge that thought. I’ve changed. The new Cassandra Hobbes had more scars—figuratively and literally.
“This one gets cranky when she does not hear from you for too many weeks,” Uncle Rio told me, nodding at Nonna. “But perhaps you are busy?” His face lit up at the prospect, and he studied me for several seconds. “Heartbreaker!” he declared. “How many boyfriends you hide from us now?”
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
Uncle Rio had been accusing me of hiding boyfriends from him for years. This was the first and only time he’d ever been right.
“You.” Nonna pointed a spatula—which had appeared in her hand out of nowhere—at Uncle Rio. “Out.”
He eyed the spatula warily, but held his ground.
Three seconds later, Nonna and I were alone in the kitchen. She stood there, watching me, her eyes shrewd, her expression softening slightly. “The boy who picked you up here last summer,” she said, “the one with the fancy car…He is a good kisser?”
“Nonna!” I sputtered.
“I have eight children,” Nonna told me. “I know about the kissing.”
“No,” I said quickly, scrubbing at the plates and trying not to read too much into that statement. “Michael and I aren’t…We don’t…”
“Ahh,” Nonna said knowingly. “His kisses, not so good.” She patted me consolingly on the shoulder. “He is young. Room for improvement!”
This conversation was mortifying on so many levels, not the least of which was the fact that Michael wasn’t the one I’d been kissing. But if Nonna wanted to think that the reason my phone calls home had been so few and far between was because I was caught in the throes of young romance, let her.
That was an easier pill to swallow than the truth: I’d been subsumed into a world of motives and victims, killers and corpses. I’d been held captive. Twice. I still woke up at night with memories of zip ties digging into my wrists and the sound of gunfire ringing in my ears. Sometimes, when I closed my eyes, I saw light reflected off of a bloody blade.
“You are happy at this school of yours?” Nonna made her best attempt at sounding casual. I wasn’t fooled. I’d lived with my paternal grandmother for five years before I’d joined the Naturals program. She wanted me safe, and she wanted me happy. She wanted me here.
“I am,” I told my grandmother. “Happy.” That wasn’t a lie. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. With my fellow Naturals, I never had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I couldn’t have, even if I’d wanted to.
In a house full of people who saw things the rest of the world missed, it was impossible to hide.
All In (The Naturals, #3)
Written By: Jennifer Lynn Barnes
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