9 Years Ago
The sensation of being watched clung to me like a spider web, invisible threads bristling the back of my neck and down my spine. I brushed my fingers across my shoulders, as if I could drag the feeling off and flick it away.
It was ridiculous, of course. Not just ridiculous to think I could pull it off so easily, as if it really was strands of a web, but it was even more absurd to feel it in the first place. Nobody ever held that much interest in me. Sure, sometimes people stared with curiosity when they picked me up on their “weird radars,” but usually they just ignored me. No one ever watched so intensely.
Yet the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end at the feeling as I visited my favorite Washington, D.C., monument for likely the last time. I sat on the stone steps with the stately Thomas Jefferson behind me and gazed over the Potomac River tidal basin, enjoying the peace just before sunset. Well, trying to enjoy it anyway.
I blamed the feeling on my unruly imagination, with it being twilight and the sky looking so ominous. It was the perfect setting for one of my stories. The sun hung low—an eerie, orange ball glowing behind a shroud of clouds, a column of steel-blue rising around it, threatening to snuff it out. I envisioned something not-quite-human watching it from the shadows, waiting to begin its hunt under the cover of darkness.
That’s all it is, just my fascination with mythical creatures, I told myself. Uh-huh. Right.
Surrendering hope for a peaceful moment, I hurried to the closest Metro station. The feeling of being followed stuck with me on the train ride home, but at my stop in Arlington, I forgot the spooky sensation. Some kids from school stood near the top of the escalator as I stepped off.
“Hey, there’s the weird girl who heals,” one of them said loudly to the others. “It’s s’posed to be really freaky to watch.”
“Hey, freak, got any tricks to show us?” another called.
I pretended not to hear and crossed the street to avoid them. My eyes stung, but no tears came. I wouldn’t allow them. It was my own fault—I’d been a klutz with the Bunsen burner in Chemistry and my lab partner saw my skin heal the burn almost instantly. Kids harassed me about it every day the last two months of school. If I didn’t let them get to me, they were usually just annoying. Usually.
Night had crept its way in during my ride home. I walked quickly through the bright commercial district and turned down the darker residential street for home, still four blocks away. Footsteps behind me echoed my own. I quickened my pace. Two more days. That’s all. Just two more days and we’re out of here.
“C’mon, dude, we just wanna know if it’s true,” a boy’s voice said.
“Yeah, just show us. It doesn’t hurt, right?”
I glanced over my shoulder. Three teens followed me and I caught the glint of a blade in one of their hands. I realized their plan to satisfy their curiosity—slice me open and watch the wound heal. What is wrong with people? Of course, it hurts!
Bungalow-style homes lined the street, each with an empty front porch. Not a single person sat outside on this summer’s evening. No one to witness their fun and my agony. My heartbeat notched up with anxiety.
Pop! Crack! The streetlights along the entire block blacked out at the sounds. I inhaled sharply and halted mid-stride. The footsteps behind me ceased, too.
“What the hell?” Surprise and fear filled the boy’s question.
A couple appeared from nowhere, about twenty-five yards down the street. It was too dark to see their features. I could only tell their genders by their shapes. The woman’s high-heeled shoes clicked on the pavement as they walked toward me. The man, big and burly, pulled his shirt over his head and handed it to the woman. Without breaking stride, he took off one shoe and then the other, leaving him with only pants. What the…?
I considered my options. The woman and her half-naked companion blocked my way home, but I wouldn’t just raise my chin and walk brusquely by them, pretending they meant no harm. Because I just knew they did. I stood trapped between the boys with the knife and the odd couple. Somehow, I knew the knife was less threatening.
“Boo!” The woman cackled as the boys took off running. As she and the man closed in on me, the alarms screamed in my head.
Evil! Bad! Run! Go!
My sixth sense had never been so frightened. I couldn’t move, though. Fear paralyzed my body. My heart hammered painfully against my ribs.
The couple stopped several yards away. The woman studied me as if assessing a rare animal. The man lifted his face to the sky, his whole body trembling. I followed his gaze to see the thin, gauzy clouds sliding across a full moon. The woman cackled again. Panic sucked the air from my lungs.
“Alexis, at last,” the woman said, her voice raspy, like a long-time smoker’s. “We’ll get such a nice reward for you.”
My eyes widened and my voice trembled. “D-do I know you?”
She grinned, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Not yet.”
Or ever, if I can help it.
I turned and ran. My pulse throbbed in my head. Breaths tore through my chest. My mind couldn’t focus, couldn’t make sense of it. But my body kept moving. The bright lights of the commercial area I’d just come from shone like a beacon. I ran for their safety.
The woman abruptly appeared in front of me before I was half-way down the street. The shock sent me hurling to the ground and my head smacked hard against the pavement. Stars shot across my eyes. My hands burned from asphalt scrapes. Fighting the blackness trying to swallow my vision, I rolled onto my side, gasping for breath. A sticky wetness pooled under my temple.
My eyes rolled up to the woman, who now pointed some kind of stick at me. Her lips moved silently as she waved a pattern in the air. I felt pinned to the ground, though nothing physically restrained me. Panic flailed uselessly below the surface of my paralyzed body, making my breaths quick and shallow. I was done for. They could do anything they wanted with me. There was no escape now.
My vision faltered. Now two women stood over me, two sticks pointed at me. Two moons wavered behind them. I didn’t know if it was fear or the head injury that caused everything to slide apart and together again. I squeezed my eyes shut.
But I couldn’t close my ears, couldn’t block out the gnarl. My eyes popped open with terror. The feral sound came from the man. His eyes rolled back, showing only whites. His hands clenched into fists. His muscles strained, the veins protruding like ropes along the bulges. His body shook violently. The edges of his shape became a blur.
“I can’t hold it!” he growled.
“Then don’t,” the woman said. “Don’t fight it. It’s time!”
A ripping sound tore through the night as the man lurched forward, his skin shredding. A gelatinous liquid spurt out of him like an exploding jar of jelly. His pants tore into ribbons as his body lengthened and grew. The shape of his limbs transformed. His face elongated, his nose and mouth becoming a… Holy crap! A snout?! I gasped, a scream stuck in my throat. By the time his front…legs…hit the ground, fur covered his body. He was no longer man. He was wolf. A freakin’ wolf?!
The wolf moved closer, a low growl in its throat. Its stench of decaying corpses and rotting leaves overwhelmed my sensitive nose, gagging me and forcing me to breathe through my mouth.
Pop! Another woman appeared. Her pale skin glowed and her white hair shimmered in the moonlight.
“I smell blood,” she said, her voice a flutter of wind chimes. “Mmm…delicious blood.”
The scrapes on my hands had already healed, but not the cut on my head. It must have been deep enough for normal people to need stitches. For me, it could take ten minutes to heal. So my blood was still fresh.
I could only smell the wolf’s rancid odor as it hovered over me.
“Back off, mutt,” the white-blonde snarled as she stepped closer. “This is too important for the likes of you!”
“How dare you!” Stick-woman gasped. “We had her first!”
“Alexis is mine. Always mine!”
What the hell is happening?! What do they want with me? Whoever they were, they wanted to do more than just scare me. I could hear it in the way the blonde said I was hers. She wanted me to hurt…or worse. Cold fear slid down my spine and hot tears burned my eyes.
Pop! A man materialized in the darkness and strode toward me. My heart jumped into my throat. Not more! The wolf growled. Both women hissed. Goose bumps crawled along my skin.
The man stepped in front of me, placing himself between me and the others.
Good! Very good! Safe! My sense slightly calmed me.
“You’re alone?” the blonde asked. “Ha! You haven’t a chance.”
The wolf lunged at my protector. He raised his hands and thrust them out toward the beast. It flew back as if blasted by something unseen. I heard a thud and a whimper as it hit the pavement. I blinked several times, disbelieving what I just saw.
The women hissed again. The first one raised her stick, pointing it at my protector. The blonde took a step toward me.
Pop! Another person appeared, between the two women and my human shield. The women responded immediately. Their teeth gleamed in the moonlight as their lips spread into grins.
No way could my protector stand up against this second man. The new one was taller, wider in the shoulders, thicker in the torso and arms than my protector, who was now out-numbered and out-muscled. The second man took a single step toward us. I didn’t dare look up at him, afraid of what I might see. But I felt his eyes rake over me. My trembling turned to quakes.
Evil? Good! (evil?) No, very good!
Again, my sense screamed loudly, and, again, it surprised me. It never questioned itself, never sounded so confused. It settled on good as he turned to face the women and their expressions darkened. I swatted down a leap of hope. The attackers still out-numbered my protectors.
The wolf, now back on all fours, stalked toward us. The fur on the back of its neck rose. Hunger shone in its eyes as its lips curled back in a snarl. Its pace quickened, my heart galloping with it. It lunged once more. I tried to scream. My constricted throat only allowed a whimper. Then the wolf flew backwards again and fell to the ground a second time.
The bigger man’s hand hung in the air, palm straight out facing the wolf, as if he’d hit it, but I never saw the contact. Both women eyed me with obvious greed. Then their eyes shifted back to my brawny protector and confusion and even fear flickered across their faces. He turned his hand toward them. Their eyes widened, looking as terrified as I felt. They disappeared with two pops.
“I got Alexis! Take care of that one!” The lankier man easily lifted me into his arms and sprinted toward my house. The beast’s stench continued to fill my head, a persistent odor that wouldn’t leave even as distance separated us.
A wolfish howl behind us diminished into a human cry of pain. I shuddered in the arms of the stranger.
“Alexis, honey.” Mom’s voice, soft and distant, pulled me out of unconsciousness. “Honey, it’s time to get up.”
“Huh?” I mumbled, disoriented, my eyelids fluttering as I came completely awake.
“We need to go.”
I squinted at her against the brightness of daylight. She knelt on the floor next to me, where I was wrapped in a blanket, a pillow under my head. How did I get here? The last thing I remembered was the stranger running with me in his arms.
Renewed fear gripped me and I sat up with a gasp. Pain shot from the base of my skull to the backs of my eyelids. I pressed my fingers to my temples. Was it real? I examined my hands. No scrapes. I touched my head. No bump or cut. It meant little, though. They would have been healed by now anyway.
“What happened last night?” I asked, my voice husky.
I started to tell her about my night. Her brows pressed together as I told her about the boys with the knife.
“I can’t believe how mean kids can be,” she interrupted. “You should have let me move you after the burn.”
I shook my head, just once. It hurt too much to move it more than that. She misinterpreted it, though, thinking I still protested her offer to move to avoid my humiliation. I hadn’t wanted to leave so close to graduation. But that happened months ago. It didn’t matter anymore.
“I know,” she said. “We’re moving now and you can have a fresh start.”
“No, that’s not it. There was this couple in the street, too. And the man…he changed into a…a werewolf. And the woman—I think she was a witch.”
Mom’s eyebrows arched. “Honey, do you realize what you’re saying?”
I did. And it sounded ludicrous. In fact, in the morning light, I knew it was more than ludicrous—it was absolutely impossible. But it had felt so real….
Confused, I studied her inhumanly beautiful face. She always said we had similar features—chestnut hair, almond-shaped, mahogany eyes, smooth, light-olive skin—her words, not mine. It described her in an understated way and was overkill for me. I resembled her, but she looked like an angel and I looked like her very human daughter.
She also looked, impossibly, twenty-six years old. Mom didn’t age. By the time I was fifteen, we had to tell people we were sisters because she looked too young to be my mother. I called her Sophia in public, but Mom in private.
“You have the wildest dreams,” she said with a small smile. She nodded and patted my arm.
“But—” I pulled my arm from her, knowing what she was doing.
“It was a dream, Alexis. We don’t have time to discuss it,” she said, an edge to her voice now.
Right. A dream. That makes more sense. Something deep inside, past the throbbing in my head, denied that theory, but there was really no other explanation. Witches and werewolves…people appearing and disappearing…. How can that be real? Logic told me it couldn’t but…my intuition knew something happened.
I broke my eyes from hers to hide my denial. It just didn’t feel right to challenge her now. My head hurt too much to argue, feeling like someone jabbed around in my brain while I slept. Also, the stony look on Mom’s face told me to drop it.
I glanced around the living room and noticed the emptiness for the first time—no furniture, no boxes stacked against the walls, nothing. “Where is everything?”
“Packed in the moving truck.” She sounded nonchalant, as if it made perfect sense.
“What?” It didn’t make sense at all, actually. That wasn’t the plan. Mom was supposed to break up with her boyfriend last night and we would pack the truck today and leave for Florida tomorrow. Why the sudden rush? She didn’t believe my story, so that couldn’t be it. It had to be the boyfriend. It was almost always the boyfriends.
“We need to get out of here,” she said. “Now.”
I knew the tone and moved as quickly as my aching head allowed. Our moves always felt like forced escapes. Sometimes it was because of an accident, but most often because of the boyfriends. Though this move had actually been planned, it now had the familiar feeling we were once again making an escape. At least this time I knew where we were going and why.
I still felt sluggish as we traveled south on I-95. Images of the werewolf and the witch flashed through my mind. I fell asleep and dreamt about them, but they were good in this dream. Not monsters. And they fell in love. I spent a good portion of the trip outlining a book about their supernatural romance, my first full-length novel that I felt compelled to write immediately.
As the drugged feeling lifted and I could think clearly, I analyzed those strange events. People tried to hurt me and possibly wanted to kill me. I thought. Maybe the werewolf and the witch and the other bizarre parts weren’t real. Maybe I hit my head harder than I realized and imagined those parts. Or maybe the real events mashed up with an actual dream and I had everything confused. But I was certain I was attacked. Fairly certain, anyway. And the way the white-blonde said I was “hers” told me it wasn’t the last time I’d see her. If she was even real. There seemed to be missing pieces in my memory. Some details, like the wolf’s terrifying eyes, were so clear, while others, like my protectors’ faces, were blank. This made me question the reality of it all, but I couldn’t dismiss the fear. It was too deeply embedded into my memory.
If someone had attacked me, though, Mom would know. She wouldn’t have dismissed it so easily. She was too protective of me. Even going off to college on my own was never an option. She gave up her job in corporate sales because, she said, she was ready for a change. She’d been in sales for as long I could remember and was quite successful at it. One of her quirks was her power of persuasion—she could sell a truckload of beef to a vegan. But she had always wanted to own a bookstore and there happened to be one for sale just ten miles from the college I’d chosen. We were both looking forward to this move and the new life it promised for us. I was glad she was coming with me. She was my best friend, after all. My only friend for years. I had to wonder now, though, if she was really coming to protect me.
Hundreds of miles passed under the truck’s wheels before I built the courage to ask.
“Mom…are there people who want to hurt us? I mean, because of who we are?”
She gave me a sideways glance. “Alexis, I would not let anything happen to you.”
“I know, but if there are people out there…shouldn’t I know? Don’t you think it’s time I knew things about us?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again. The corner of her lips turned down in a frown. “I can’t tell you, honey. I just can’t. Not until the Ang’dora.”
Right. The Ang’dora. The enigmatic “change” that was somehow connected with our quirks and everything that made us weird. I knew little about it. I knew little about us.
“Are you asking because of your dream last night?” she asked. “Because you know it’s–”
I cut her off with a sigh. “Yeah, I know. Not real.”
I wanted to believe her. That was the easy and safe explanation, but I just knew it was wrong.
Mom held our secrets tightly, even from me, and I’d given up begging for information years ago. She had told me many times she was bound to a promise made when I was an infant. I couldn’t know our secrets until I went through the Ang’dora and became more like her. I pretended I didn’t care and allowed myself to live behind a façade of normalcy.
Now I did care. Whether I was really attacked or not, it was time I knew who we were and why we had strange quirks. I hated snooping behind her back, but her refusal to explain left no other options.
The move made the first step easy. I volunteered to unpack the house while Mom prepared to re-open the store. When she took me up on the offer to do her room, I didn’t expect to discover anything she didn’t want me to. And I didn’t. I found false identification for both of us—drivers’ licenses, birth certificates, passports and the like—giving us different last names, but they weren’t helpful. I grew up with several surnames, a different one each time we moved, though most often we went by “Ames,” as we did now. I was pretty sure that was the real one.
I couldn’t even research Ames and our other surnames. Besides Sophia and Alexis, I had no first names to go on. We had extended family somewhere, but I’d never met them and Mom rarely discussed them. Without knowing their names, I could have searched genealogical records for years and never known if I was even in the right family. By the time the first day of classes came around, I knew nothing more, but I had a new plan and the college library would be perfect for it.
That was the day the dreams stopped. Until then, I repeatedly dreamt of that strange night, particularly of one of my heroes. Not the one who carried me away, but the other one, the bigger one. I still never saw his face, just a shadowy figure, but it was him. Who are you? My dream-self asked every time. I never received an answer and he stopped visiting my dreams the first day of classes. Perhaps because a very real guy entered my dreams…and my life.
I dropped two classes before school even started. It was actually Mom’s idea. I had a novel to write. When she read the outline I developed during our move, she said school could wait, the book couldn’t. An unexpected statement from her, but she had her own sixth sense. Mine told me if people were unusually good or bad, as if I picked up on a brainwave revealing their overall intentions. Mom could feel truths—and she was never wrong. She felt the truth my book would be published. She even said, mysteriously, it needed to be written.
On the first day of college, with several hours between my morning classes and my one night class, I took the opportunity to do some research and planted my butt in a hard plastic chair at a library computer station. I wasn’t researching for my book, though, and not for class either. This time was for me. I finally concluded that all I really could research were our quirks—I knew nothing else about us. I found a somewhat promising trail on the Internet and spent the entire afternoon researching telepaths.
When I was done, I stared at my notes and felt like an idiot. Telepaths?! I seriously wasted hours on telepaths? I shook my head at the absurdity. Mom and I had quirks, but we certainly couldn’t read minds. Besides, telepaths, well, didn’t exist. Did they?
I sighed and glanced at the clock, then bolted out of my seat, grabbing my bag and papers. Communications started in five minutes. I rushed through the library, rounded a corner and slammed right into a large, hard body. Sweet and tangy. Mmm…mangos, papayas, lime, sage…and a hint of man. Having a powerful sense of smell was often unpleasant, but it was worth suffering through bad body odor and nasty garbage for this. He smelled delicious. But he sounded annoyed or angry as a low growl rumbled in his chest.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
I looked up to see the face belonging to such yumminess. Whoa! Talk about yummy! He was absolutely gorgeous. Too gorgeous. I looked away immediately, embarrassed by my behavior. I bent down to gather the papers I dropped—and so did he. To complete my humiliation, I shocked him with static electricity when our fingers touched. I blushed. He chuckled quietly.
“Alexis Ames,” he murmured under his breath. If it hadn’t been my own name, I wouldn’t have even understood—he said it so quietly. His thumb underlined my name on the class schedule he handed back to me. I took it, mumbled “thank-you” and bolted.
I hurried across campus, slipped inside the classroom with a minute to spare and took the closest open seat. A syllabus was already on the desk. The instructor stood at the head of the class, carefully watching the clock above the door. He started his introductions at six o’clock sharp and rudely rebuked a couple of students who arrived late, commenting that tardiness was a sign of disrespect. As if his tone was not. Note to self: Be on time for this one.
I’d felt the burn of eyes on me when I walked in the door and took my seat. Normally I would have disregarded it. I was used to it, especially the last couple months of high school, when everyone was curious about my burn. But as I sat there, trying to listen to the professor as he monotonously listed his credentials, I could feel the eyes again, making the back of my neck tingle. It wasn’t the same threatening feeling I felt at the Jefferson Memorial. This was the uncomfortable but familiar feeling of curious eyes. I glanced over my shoulder, pretending to check out the classroom. Oops. I was caught. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away for several seconds.
Wow. Beautiful. That was all I could think through the haze filling my brain. I never understood how a guy could be considered beautiful until now. He was stunningly attractive like Mom was—beyond what should be allowed for any human.
His eyes held mine until I finally came to my senses and pulled away. Mr. Beautiful smiled as I slid my eyes to the front of the room. And then it hit me. Oh, no! Why me?! I had barely glanced at him the first time, but I knew without a doubt: he was the same guy I’d run into like an idiot less than five minutes ago. Apparently, he recognized me, too, and found it funny. I wished one of my quirks was the ability to disappear.
“Most of your projects will be done as teams,” the professor droned. “You’ll be with the same team throughout the semester. Your team number is in the upper-right corner of the first page of your syllabus. Your first project is due next week, so get into your groups now to make introductions and get started.”
The professor was the type high-school students fretted about when they thought of college—demanding, commanding, condescending, anal-retentive. He was nothing like my other instructors. My calculus teacher would make the subject bearable because at night he was a stand-up comedian and my women’s studies instructor was the eccentric cat-woman. Not the superhero, but the crazy, old maid who lived with a bunch of cats.
Based on Mr. Anal’s instructions of where teams should gather, I didn’t have to move. Two girls—one a cute, girl-next-door blonde and the other a scowling, black-haired Goth—and two guys joined me in our designated section of the room.
Including Mr. Beautiful.
Of course. Just my luck.
He was the last to join us, after switching his syllabus with one on an empty desk—he wanted to be in our group. I figured he knew somebody. When he headed our way, his athletic build straining against his shirt, even Ms. Grumpy Goth straightened up and smiled slightly. But then I caught a quick, but odd reaction from the other three and I knew immediately he hadn’t chosen our group because he knew anyone.
Mr. Beautiful nodded at each of us as he took a seat and the others shrunk back slightly. A look of fear, or maybe just astonishment, flickered in their eyes. A slight smile played on his lips when he looked at me last. I couldn’t figure out what the others saw because I didn’t notice anything. Of course, I did notice something, but nothing warranting that kind of reaction. My sense remained quiet.
Then I realized there was something—a strange nudge in the back of my mind. There was something different but unidentifiable about him. I could barely introduce myself before I zoned out through the other introductions and tried unsuccessfully to figure out what the nudge meant.
During a break halfway through class, I bought a soda and wandered outside. The hot, heavy air wasn’t exactly refreshing, but it was a nice break from the closed up, conditioned air inside. The sun had officially set and the sky was still a pinkish-purple in the west, the tops of two palm trees silhouetted against it. A couple people sat on the top step, talking. I walked down the steps and leaned against a lamppost, sipping my drink.
“Alexis, right?” a silky, sexy voice asked behind me, making me jump and slosh soda over my hand. I turned to see Mr. Beautiful. Of course he would sound lovely. I already knew he smelled good, too. Yep. He strode over to me and I could really take in the scents. Sweet mangos and papayas, citrusy lime, sage…and, of course, that hint of man. I could tell it was natural—it didn’t have the chemical undertone like cologne or soaps did. It was a fresh fragrance, making me think of sitting in the sun on a warm day.
“Uh, yeah.” The lamp over us cast its light directly on his spellbinding face. He took my breath away and made my mind foggy.
It wasn’t right for a guy to be so incredibly attractive. Besides how tall he stood—towering at least a foot over my five-two—I noticed his hazel eyes first. They pulled me into their staggering beauty, with a wide ring of emerald green on the outside of the irises and brown around the pupils with gold specks that seemed to…sparkle. They were fringed with such long, dark lashes that it was unfair they were on a guy. His facial features were flawless—a square jaw, full lips and a golden suntan—better than any movie star or model. Sandy brown hair, longer on top and streaked by the sun, topped off his perfection. And then he smiled magnificently and the gold flecks in his eyes sparkled brighter, like when the sun hits gold flakes in a mining pan. My brain slid out the exit door and my insides melted. Get a grip!
I tried to remember his name. He had to have introduced himself to the team. I must have been really focused on that mind nudge, because I drew a blank.
“I’m Tristan…in case you didn’t catch it.”
I nodded as if I knew. “Yeah, nice to meet you, Tristan. Sorry about running into you.”
“I’m not,” he murmured so quietly, I probably wasn’t supposed to have heard.
We both stood there awkwardly…well, I felt awkward, anyway. I expected him to leave, but, strangely, he didn’t.
“So…how was your first day of classes?” he finally asked.
I looked up at him in surprise. Why are you talking to me? No one talks to me.
“Uh, fine, I guess. You?”
“This is my only class today and, so far, it’s perfect.” He chuckled, as if there were some underlying meaning to his answer.
“Lucky. This is my third.”
“Busy day.” Another moment of awkward silence passed before he continued, probably thinking it rude to walk off now. “This is my only class this semester, actually. Too much other stuff going on to take a full load right now.”
I told him I could relate and, for some reason, babbled through my entire schedule, my hand flitting anxiously between twirling the tab of my soda can and tugging at my hair.
“Women’s studies, huh?” He lifted an eyebrow, a gleam in his eyes. “Maybe I should look into that one. Sounds…interesting.”
I laughed. It sounded unusually high, anxious. “It’s almost all girls…but I’m sure they wouldn’t kick you out.”
Did I really just say that aloud? I blushed. He laughed, the pleasurable sound making my heart flip.
I struggled to concentrate through the rest of class, replaying the five-minute conversation with Tristan and silently chastising myself for acting like an airhead.
“Which dorm are you in?” the blond girl-next-door asked me after class. I thought someone called her Carlie.
“Oh, I live off campus, with my…” Oops, almost said Mom. I was out of practice. “…with my sister.”
“Oh, too bad.” She sounded genuinely disappointed. “I thought we could walk back together, maybe hang out. I’ll see you Wednesday afternoon for our team meeting.”
“Yeah, see you then.” I thought maybe college was different than high school. People were actually friendly.
As soon as she left, prickles of fear trailed down my spine. Walking alone at night to my car scared the crap out of me. It felt like the opportune time and place for another attack. My attackers probably didn’t even know where I lived now, but I had no guarantees. They found me once. I was sure they could find me again.
I stuffed my books in my bag and retrieved my keys. I gripped them with their points jutting between my fingers to use as a weapon, clutched the bag’s strap in my other hand and took a deep breath.
“I’ll walk you out to the parking lot,” Tristan offered, slinging his own bag over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t be alone on campus at night.”
I exhaled with relief. “That’d be great.”
Though I’d just met him, I felt safe with Tristan. Not that I wanted him or anyone else involved, but I hoped those strangers wouldn’t try to attack with other people around—real people, not boys with little pocket knives.
As we walked in silence, I wondered what was wrong with him. There had to be something because he paid attention to me again. Of course, I was usually the one avoiding everyone else, only because I knew there would be a negative reaction at some point. But Tristan …I didn’t want to avoid him. Something inside me seemed to click with him already.
I knew I was making a mistake, setting myself up for disappointment…or worse. Guys who even had a fraction of his looks could pick any girl, throw her a bone and she’d do anything for him—like his homework. That was the only reason they talked to freaks like me…unless they thought we were an easy score. I didn’t want to think that way about Tristan, though. It wasn’t fair. But if either were true, he’d be the one disappointed. For now, I’d give him the benefit of the doubt and pretend like it was perfectly normal for him to be talking to me. Again.
“So you live close by?” he asked.
“Yeah. Cape Heron, with my sister, Sophia. She bought a bookstore.” Why am I telling him all this?
“The Book Nook? The one on Fifth?”
“Yeah, you know it?”
“I live in the Cape, too. I noticed it was re-opening soon.”
“In a month or so. It’s been closed for over a year, so it’s needed a lot of work.”
“Let me know if she needs any help. I’m good with my hands.” He waved his hands in emphasis.
I tried not to think about what his hands may be good at. It made me giddy.
I was glad she’d already hired someone. Mr. Beautiful around Mom? They might meet at some point, considering we had several team projects over the semester and he lived near the bookstore. I thought I would kill her if she didn’t make it clear that she’s not interested. Although he couldn’t possibly be interested in me, I didn’t think I could stand for him to date her…to be my mother’s boyfriend. Ugh!
“I’m taking a gamble here, but I’d say that’s your ride?”
Besides a motorcycle, my 15-year-old, white VW convertible was the only vehicle in the parking lot. The other classes must have let out early for the first night. He walked me to my car.
“Guess I’ll see you Wednesday?” he asked as I opened the door and dropped my bag on the back seat.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Be careful.” He paused, then added, “Driving home, I mean.”
“Um, you, too.” I eyed the shiny motorcycle. I didn’t know what kind it was, but it definitely wasn’t a Harley-Davidson, the only kind I really knew. It looked more like a racing bike, the kind seen screaming down the highway at ninety miles an hour, the rider hunched over the handlebars, dangerously weaving around traffic. He had a risky side. Maybe that’s what the mind-nudge detected.
“You don’t like bikes?”
“I like Harleys.” I hoped that didn’t offend him, if it was a Chevy-versus-Ford kind of thing.
He chuckled. “My other one is a Harley.”
My eyes widened. “Your other one?”
“I like toys.” He shrugged with a grin. “See you Wednesday.”
I sat in my car and watched him walk away in my rearview mirror. About halfway across the parking lot, his whole body seemed to shift, to relax. I hadn’t even noticed he was tense—he’d seemed so cool and casual. I wondered what made him anxious. Surely someone like him couldn’t be nervous talking to someone like me. As he fired up the bike, he glanced over at my car and I started my own engine so he wouldn’t think something was wrong. Don’t mind me. Just ogling.
Wednesday morning I rushed again, this time to my women’s studies class. It was the last place I wanted to be, so I took my time getting to campus and now I was running late. Why did I take this stupid class anyway? Tuesday had been a productive day for writing. Going to this silly class now seemed like a waste of a valuable hour. It would be a long day on campus, too, with the team meeting in the afternoon.
I walked into class right at 9:30, but it hadn’t started yet. A low thrum of chatter among the students filled the room. Not all were female; there were three guys. No…four today. My mouth nearly dropped open. Tristan sat at the back of the class, talking to a couple of girls. He put his arm across the desk next to him and shook his head, saving the seat for someone. I wondered who the lucky girl was as I headed to an open desk.
I retrieved my books from my bag when he caught my eye and grinned. He nodded at the desk next to him and winked. I stared at him, a dense fog filling my brain. When I shook my head to clear it, he pushed his bottom lip out and gave me sad eyes. A small giggle burst through my lips. Before my brain registered that I moved, I was already back there.
“What are you doing here?” I whispered.
“I told you, it sounded interesting, so I picked up the class. Maybe I’ll learn something.” The smile he flashed caused my heart to flip. He was good at making my heart do gymnastics.
“I’m sure it’s not what you’re thinking.”
“Do you really think I enrolled in a class without knowing what it was? Give me a little credit, please,” he teased, holding up a syllabus.
“Sorry. It just doesn’t seem like the type of thing you’d be interested in. I feel like it’s a waste of time and I’m a woman.”
“Hmm…maybe I can make it interesting for you.”
I lifted my eyebrows. What does that mean? He smiled and nodded at the front of the room. The instructor started class. I tried to focus on her, but my eyes wanted to pull to my right. Sitting next to Tristan in class was like driving down a highway parallel to a breathtaking landscape—I knew I should keep my eyes straight forward, but they kept drifting to the side to enjoy the view.
I peered at him a couple times out of the corner of my eye, not able to help myself. I thought I saw pain or anger in his eyes and I wondered what he was thinking. The next time I peeked, it was gone. He peered back at me, the gold flecks sparkling. He pushed his notebook to the side of his desk, toward me, with a note written in the margin.
How many cats do you think she has?
I suppressed a giggle. I’d wondered the same thing about the teacher on the first day of class. I wrote on my own notebook: 12?
He flipped over to a blank sheet and his pen dashed across the page. I started to think he was just taking notes when he pushed the notebook toward me again. He’d drawn a cartoon picture of the teacher with twelve cats surrounding her. I had to cover my mouth with my hand to keep from laughing aloud. We exchanged written jokes about her and the cats, adding things to the cartoon drawing, throughout the remainder of class.
“What are you up to between now and that team meeting we have later?” he asked after class.
I wrinkled my nose. “I have calculus in ten minutes. Then I’ll probably torture myself some more and try to get homework done before our meeting.”
“Not a math geek, huh?”
“Not even close.” It was the only freshman core class I hadn’t tested out of. But that was more than he needed to know.
“Well, you have fun with that. See you later. And thanks for making class interesting.”
I cocked an eyebrow. I should have been thanking him. I had practically fallen out of my seat with silent giggles.
“Seriously. It’s no fun writing notes to myself. I don’t play along nearly as well as you do.” He grinned. Then he did it again: he winked at me. My insides softened as I gawked at him. I’m such a fool.
“I’ll see you later,” I finally muttered when my head cleared. I made a beeline for the door before I made a bigger idiot of myself.
After calculus, I grabbed a soda and a bag of trail mix at the student union and headed for the seating area where our team would be meeting. I had just spread out my calculus text and notebook on the table when the familiar voice murmured close behind me.
“I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time.”
It’s like he keeps finding me…but why would he want to? Not that it bothered me. It should have, but it didn’t. He made me feel…good. Despite the mind-nudge.
“If that’s the case, then I should turn you in for stalking me,” I replied drily as Tristan dropped his bag on the table and took the seat next to me.
“Hmm, let’s consider this. You show up in my communications class, then in my women’s studies class that I decide to pick up and have no idea which one you’re taking, and now you’re right here where I need to be in thirty minutes. I could turn you in for stalking.”
I could tell he was just teasing, but my face reddened anyway.
“I wouldn’t, though, turn you in, I mean. You can stalk me anytime.” He grinned. I blushed. Mr. Beautiful is flirting with me.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have time right now. First, I need to get this homework done.”
“Ah, right, your own personal torture. Need some help? I am a math geek.”
I laughed. “Geek” was the last word anyone would use to describe Tristan.
That’s how it all started. With two classes together and team projects to work on, I saw him every other day during the week. He helped me with my calculus, I helped him perfect his essays and we kept each other company in our classes.
I honestly couldn’t explain my behavior. I should have pulled away, if I knew what was good for me. Instead, I was drawn toward him. He brought something out in me I never knew was there. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but it felt good. Emotionally good. Well, physically good, too. But also emotionally. Really.
Even more than my own behavior, I certainly didn’t understand his—he could easily take his pick of girls. I didn’t complain, of course. Our conversations centered on homework, college and the weather—pretty boring, yet safe, topics. The more time we spent together, the better I felt around him. The mind-nudge had all but disappeared.
Spending time with Tristan on campus left little time for my research. But there wasn’t much to do, anyway. The deeper I sunk into it, the more outlandish it became. All I found were myths—telepaths, witches, werewolves, vampires—and even then, each had only one or two of our characteristics. Nothing matched, not even fantasy. I came to a dead-end with no idea where to go next.