Protected (Book 1 in the Ariya Adams Trilogy)

Book 1 of the Ariya Adams Trilogy: Protected is available NOW!

Protected-ebook

Here is a Sneak Peek into Protected. I’ve included the first two chapters for you to read here. If you enjoy, head on over to Amazon and Barnes & Noble to continue your reading adventure!

AND Check out this Book Trailer by Anitra at Can’t Read Just One!

Chapter 1

I awoke with a start.

A falling sensation that now frequented my dreams jolted my sleeping mind and body into a conscious state of awareness. I can never remember the pieces of those falling dreams before the unsettling sensation hits. I just jerk awake and remember being mid-air. I’ve never had any trouble sleeping before, but it’s been happening quite a bit for the past month, and I can’t put my finger on why. This time, when the panicked freefall rocketed me to an upright position, a well-worn copy of Pride and Prejudice slid off my chest and thudded against the bedroom floor. I love Jane Austin. Pride and Prejudice was my favorite. There is something about tough romances that always gets me–the ones filled with misunderstandings and miscommunications that almost don’t work out are the ones that lead to the best endings.

“Did Mr. Darcy catch you this time, Ariya?” My roommate Caroline stood smirking in the doorway of my room.

“I’m sure if I had stayed asleep a second longer he would have been right there.” I laughed and bent down to pick up my book from the floor.

She rolled her eyes at me with the corners of her mouth quirked up in a playful grin. Caroline and I have been roommates at Kingsbrook College for three years now. Kingsbrook College is a small school in Mineral Point, Michigan, tucked away so well that most people have never even heard of it. The town itself only has about ten thousand people, and college students make up over half the population. Caroline had convinced me to stay behind for a summer course after our sophomore year. It had been eerily quiet in town when the majority of the students had moved out, and we were left behind.

I was lucky enough to have a guidance counselor in high school, Miss Lazaro, who put forth the effort to get to know the students who came to her, so much so that she could pinpoint a college she thought we’d love. Miss Lazaro knew that I loved our small town and that I would probably not like city life. She understood that I was a true romantic at heart, so she had given me a brochure for Kingsbrook College and suggested I take a look.

One glance at the classic buildings, the descriptions of small intimate class settings, and the picturesque views the brochure displayed, and I was hooked. I loaded my parents into our car for a campus visit and made my decision almost the minute the town came into view. Now, Kingsbrook is home to me – Go Timberwolves!

Caroline and I met our freshman year when we moved into our dorm room. We had been randomly assigned as roommates, but the feeling of unfamiliarity didn’t last long. We bonded immediately and have stayed roommates. She’s my best friend. I grew up an only child. Even though I don’t really know what it is like to have a sibling, I imagine that our relationship is what having a sister is probably like. My goal is to push my daydreamer-like attitude onto her, and she tries to keep me more grounded, like her. They do say opposites attract, and we fit that bill perfectly.

“Well, it’s time to wake up, Ariya. We have things to do,” she chimed.

“Things to do? We’ve only been back one day!”

Move-in day wasn’t particularly tough since we had lived in the same apartment for two years. All we had to do was bring some clothes back from home and we were all set. It only took about an hour, so I had picked up my book and dozed off in the process of reading, or as I told Caroline, settling back in.

Acting as if she didn’t hear my groaning, she continued, “I ran out to get some mixers while you were in LaLa Land and bumped into Ashley. She has been back two seconds and already has her next target set. It’s ridiculous.” She rolled her eyes again. She loved doing that. She loved doing anything dramatic come to think of it, and I loved her for it.

“Anyways, she’s having some people over at her place tonight and said we must come.” She said the last part in her mocking Ashley voice. It sounded like a high-pitched southern belle, reminding me of Scarlett O’Hara. I couldn’t help but smile.

Not only had Caroline and I gotten along so well our freshman year, but it also turned out the entire floor of the dorm we lived in ended up being friends throughout college. It was our core group and Ashley Saunders was a part of that group. Caroline couldn’t stand her most of the time. She had great reasons. Ashley was someone who was hard to get along with in general. Her main focus in college was finding a husband so she could be a housewife.

Caroline couldn’t stand that. She was always preaching how women should be independent, have goals for themselves without the input of men, and focus on figuring things out for themselves instead of being told what to do. She acted like quite the feminist, which was funny to me because she also had an extremely protective and motherly side when it came to me. Sometimes it was even to the point of being overprotective.

To be honest, I think every girl in our unit is a bit envious of Ashley. She has long brown hair that seems to always fall perfectly in loose curls. She is petite and bubbly, and, as she likes to put it, she loves to have fun.

Caroline, being beautiful herself, was probably the only one who didn’t get jealous of her. Caroline had shorter brown hair that she wore straight for the most part. She was built like me, tall and athletic. She was pale, which I attributed to the fact that she lived in places where the weather was on the colder side eighty percent of the time.

The weather here in Mineral Point didn’t really allow for year-round sun bathing. Plus, Caroline was always chilled, at least to the touch, so I doubted she’d last long sitting outside in a bathing suit anyway. Being cold natured was something I constantly teased her about. I couldn’t get away with teasing her about being pale though, seeing as I was no tan beauty myself.

Ultimately, what really made Caroline beautiful was her confidence. She was strong, independent, and poised, a deadly combination when there was something to be done. Having all that self-assurance meant there was no reason for Caroline to feel threatened by Ashley and all the fun she has with her male following. From what Caroline was saying about her run-in with Ashley, this party was an excuse for Ashley’s next conquest to see how much fun she really was. Ashley tended not to care who came to her shindigs as long as the house was full and she got to play the queen bee. Since the rest of us didn’t really care who was perceived in that role, we just showed up and hung out with each other while she put on her show.

She was probably going to be stuck in that mindset her whole life, and it made me feel sorry for her. It seemed like an awful lot of work to keep up that sort of artificial persona. Being the center of attention wasn’t at all my thing. Ashley could take that spot for all I cared. Maybe that’s why we all just dealt with her. At least there would be plenty of people to catch up with, now that we were all back at school for our senior year.

“I’m in. It’s always fun to watch her work her magic.” I grinned at Caroline and put my book back on the overloaded bookshelf in my room.

We headed into the kitchen to make dinner before getting ready to go out for the evening. We were master chefs when it came to Ramen Noodles. Learning to cook had never come up at home. My mom’s a great cook. Although I’m hardly qualified for more than cooking packaged meals, I can bake, so I’m not completely hopeless in the kitchen. She cooked, I baked, and that was our routine. It worked at home, but in college, when I was on my own and had a roommate who’d ordered out every meal she ever ate, it was a bit more challenging to come up with dinners each night.

To top it off, Caroline was one of the pickiest eaters known to man. She would order something only to eat a couple bites and be done. I had no idea how she did it. While I devoured everything in sight, she was like a bird with her food. Half the time I was left wondering if she had some secret stash of grub hidden in her room because I know I’d starve if I were to eat as little as she did.

We lived in a four-person apartment. We had been living with two other girls who were a year older than us. When they’d graduated last semester, we had to decide if we wanted to pick up two random roommates for our senior year or move to a two-person apartment. We’d seriously considered two girls we’d met at a mixer, but Caroline had jumped in and said she’d pick up the extra cost instead. I argued for quite some time with her on that, but she insisted, stating that she thought it was a good investment and it would give her more space for her clothes. Once Caroline made up her mind, that was usually it, so now, it was just us in the apartment for the whole year.

While Caroline boiled water for our usual pasta dish, I absently flicked on the television. The news was the first thing to pop up on the screen. I frowned and turned towards the kitchen. “Since when do you watch the news?” I teased.

“The cable probably got reset back to channel three when I reactivated the account after summer break, smart aleck.” She smiled at me.

I was about to make my way to sit over at the kitchen bar and wait for Caroline to finish up when a sketch flashing across the screen caught my eye. I turned up the volume as the anchor covered the story.

“Two hikers became the victims of a strange animal attack while hiking the Willow Valley Trail yesterday evening. An eyewitness, and sole survivor to the attack, provided a description of the animal shown here for a sketch artist. The hikers tried to escape, but only one managed to get away. Christopher Luxon returned back to town safely. The other hiker, Samuel Dorchky, is still missing.”

More information was given about who to contact along with phone numbers in case viewers had more information or sighted the animal, but it didn’t register as much as the story had. I stood blinking, trying to process the information I’d just seen. I’d never heard of any animal attacks in the area before, and Willow Valley Trail was only about fifteen miles from town. It was a well-traveled walk when weather permitted. In fact, Caroline and I had hiked there before. The hand-drawn image on the screen depicted a large, ragged looking wolf. At least that’s what the picture looked like. The news just called it an animal.

“Did you see this?” I waved the remote at the T.V. screen and looked at Caroline in the kitchen.

She shrugged. “Yeah. Weird, right? I’m sure it’s just a random occurrence, though. I mean, seriously, it’s not like animal attacks are the norm here.”

“Yeah, odd.” Turning my attention back to the television, I switched channels to something a bit more light-hearted and then laid the remote on the bar in order to refocus my attention on Caroline.

“So what are you wearing tonight?” Caroline looked over from the stove expectantly after dropping the noodles in the boiling water.

“Can’t you pick?” She raised her eyebrows at my response. “Come on,” I whined. “Just because it’s senior year doesn’t mean I’ve magically developed some sort of fashion sense.”

The truth was, I was most comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans, but Caroline would never let me out of the house for a party dressed like that. She usually grabbed things out of her closet and threw them at me as she was getting ready.

I was glad we were the same size. I have straight, long blonde hair that really doesn’t fall any other way. I am long-legged and in fairly good shape. I have broad shoulders and I am muscular, which made me pretty good at almost any sport I’d tried when I was growing up. I’m not a bulky weight lifter or anything. I just like sports. Running, swimming, tennis, and even soccer. You name it, and I have done it.

While I haven’t really played any particular sport since high school, I still run to stay in shape. My mom and dad loved having me in sports. They thought it was the best way to learn how to hold your head up, even in defeat, and how to develop skills like teamwork. They were also adamant that once I started something, I was never allowed to quit. Growing up where sports were so all-consuming, it was hard to focus on girly things like a fashion sense. I enjoyed looking pretty and dressing up, I just couldn’t get the whole pick-out-the-clothes-and-make-an-outfit thing down.

“Ariya Adams! Have you not learned anything from me? I try so hard and nothing. Sometimes it’s like you just don’t care,” she said sarcastically before shooting me a smile. “Please tell me you didn’t spend the entire summer wearing your usual ensemble.”

I gave her an innocent look and shrugged my shoulders.

“Unbelievable! At least we were together for half of it. That means you only looked like a wreck fifty percent of the time.” I balled up a napkin and threw it at her while she removed our dinner from the stove and poured it into bowls. “Speaking of this summer…” she trailed off for a second, “I met someone,” she dragged out the last part.

My head jerked up and I looked at her in shock. “What?” I knew I probably looked like a psychopath with my eyes wide and mouth hanging open.

“Yeah, I know, crazy.” She smiled.

“We talk every day. How in the world did you not mention this already? When? What’s his name? How’d you meet him?” Excitement radiated from me and the questions came out at lightning speed.

“You’ve been so anti-guy since Derrick that I just thought I’d wait to bring it up until we could gab again in person.”

That was true. Derrick played intramural hockey, which is a staple for guys at Kingsbrook. Hockey is to Kingsbrook College what football is to the University of Alabama, just without all the national attention, media coverage, oh, and the championship titles. The boys here tended to think they were on a big stage when they played, which did lead to some entertaining victory shuffles and antics. It was an adjustment for me to focus on hockey since I came from a football town, but it was actually really fun once I got into it.

Derrick was the goalie for one of the teams, and we had gone out a few times. After the fourth date, he looked at me over our dinner plates and said if I wasn’t going to put out, he was going to stop paying for all my “free” outings. That ended our romance quickly.

That wasn’t the only thing that had turned me off from dating the boys here for a while. Being at a college that was seventy percent female, the choice of men to date was limited. Most of the ones around were so arrogant they weren’t worth the time. I watched most of my guy friends parade through girls like they were in a competition to see who could sleep with the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my guy friends. They were some of my closest friends besides Caroline, but sometimes they were just pathetic.

Caroline silently sat the noodles in front of me, still not gushing about her new beau, so I decided to push her a bit more. “Hellooooo, details please? Just because I don’t have someone to gab about doesn’t mean I can’t live vicariously through you. Come on! I want to know everything.” It didn’t take much for her to open up and I listened intently.

“His name is Nick. He worked as a bartender at a sushi place across the street from Starbucks.” Caroline’s summer job at Starbucks made her my lifesaver during the school year with her barista skills. “We saw each other almost every day for two weeks, and then he walked in before his shift one day. We just started talking, and then hanging out and, well, you know…” She winked at me.

“So, when do I get to meet him?” I asked, leaning on the counter eagerly.

“Actually, I wanted to ask you about that. I want him to come up this weekend. Is that okay? I know it’s our first weekend back, but I would like him to meet everyone, and since things are relaxed with no classes, I figured it was the best time.”

I knew he must be pretty serious if Caroline was inviting him up already. It meant she wanted to show him off a bit. Good for her; Caroline deserved it. She’d been single almost as long as I had, and while neither of us needed men in our lives to be happy, it was nice to think she had found someone. Plus, for her to be that attached to a guy was a first, at least that I had seen.

“What do you mean is that okay? I can’t wait to meet him!” A giggle escaped me as my own reaction infused with her excitement.

“And there’s something else, too.” She was grinning from ear to ear. My eyebrows shot up expectantly. “He’s thinking about transferring and I wanted him to get a feel for the place once students were back, you know? And meet the people he’d be seeing the most. I actually invited him up tonight. Since everyone will be together for Ashley’s party, it just kind of made sense.”

“A senior who wants to transfer? Whoa! You really reeled him in, huh?” I joked. “This must be serious, Care.”

She was giddy for once and I loved it. Giddiness wasn’t an emotion Caroline displayed much. “Good. The long distance thing would be hard, and if he likes it here, it’ll be so much easier.” I could tell she was glad at my reaction.

“When is he going to be here?” I glanced over at the clock.

“He’ll be here in an hour.”

I wasn’t surprised and laughed to myself. She may be Miss Independent, but like I said, when Caroline wanted something, she made it happen. “Well, I suggest we get ready now so we can head over to Ashley’s early once Nick gets here. You can show off a bit yourself. I’m sure her new guy has nothing on Nick.”

Chapter 2

An hour later, Caroline introduced me to Nick. He was handsome and tall with a ripped, muscular frame, and blond shaggy hair. We poured ourselves a drink and sat down in the living room to talk for a bit before changing clothes for the evening and heading to Ashley’s place.

Nick was not shy and had us all chatting away in easy conversation almost immediately. I could instantly see that he was exactly what Caroline looks for in her guys. The few crushes she admitted to having had all been the jock-type, but with intelligence. It was a nearly impossible combination to find. However, Nick seemed exceptionally bright when he spoke, and he played football for a college further south near Caroline’s hometown in Kansas. I hadn’t heard of his school before and barely remembered the name after he’d said it.

His interest in transferring had been surprising enough when Caroline first told me that he a senior, but learning that he was also the starting quarterback made this entire thing mind-boggling. Maybe Caroline really had cast a spell on him.

We bonded over football for a bit, and I filled him in on how hockey was the hot ticket here. He sounded like he really had his stuff together, plus he spent the summer employed full-time, which led me to believe he was hard-working, even in his free time. I know that is something Caroline values. Glancing over at Caroline every few minutes made me happy. She was glowing the whole time he was talking. That girl is a goner, I thought to myself.

Caroline excused the two of us so we could get ready, telling Nick to make himself at home. She pulled me into her room, and shut the door.

“So?” she questioned anxiously.

“Two thumbs up.” Sticking my thumbs up to demonstrate caused the already large smile on her face to grow even more. She pranced to the closet and flung a silver sequin top and a pair of skinny jeans at me.

“You know how I feel about sequins.” I looked at her disgustedly.

“That’s what you’re wearing. It’ll look amazing, and since I’m the only one with any sort of fashion sense, it’s what you’re stuck with,” she said, as she flitted through the closet for her own outfit. When she turned, I brought my hand up to salute.

“Aye-aye.” Turning, I headed to the bathroom to throw everything on. Before I could shut the door, Caroline barked out another ensemble order at me.

“Grab those black boots out of the front closet when we leave and you’ll be set.”

“Have I told you how much I love you?” I asked, poking my head out of the bathroom door.

“It’s obvious, now hurry up.” She shooed me in to change, and I quickly pulled on the clothes she had picked out for me.

The black boots were one of my many fashion enemies. It was like a wrestling match to get them on and up over the jeans, but Caroline would murder me if I wasn’t victorious. I had to admit, I did tend to feel prettier when I put some effort into it, or rather when Caroline put some effort into it. Once the boots were on, I ran back to my room to apply some light make-up and take one last look at myself. This is as good as it’s going to get, I told myself, shrugging at my reflection.

We left the apartment and headed down the path through the woods behind our complex that let to Ashley’s building in a neighboring development. In a small college town, none of us were really that far from each other. It made our get-togethers that much easier.

We were early and the first ones to arrive for the night. Ashley acted excessively enthusiastic about meeting Nick. She got the death glare a couple times from Caroline when she reached out to touch Nick’s arm. Beyond that, there was no drama between the girls. I walked into the kitchen before hollering back to the group, asking if anyone wanted a drink. Of course, there was a resounding, “yes,” from all of them. I quickly grabbed some cups, filled them up with beer from the keg, and handed them out to everyone.

It wasn’t long before more of our friends showed up. I squealed when I felt arms wrap around me and lift me up off the ground. I turned my head to see that I was in the embrace of Riley Blake. Riley was my best friend besides Caroline. He dropped me to the floor and grabbed a cup off the counter, then reached over to the keg to pour himself a beer.

“Can you believe this is it?”

“No! Don’t tell me you’re going to go all mushy on me thinking you’re never going to see me again after graduation.” I laughed, pushing into him playfully.

“Please, you’d miss me too much if we never saw each other again. Now, how about a celebration kiss for your favorite guy before our time runs out here?”

Riley was always trying to charm everyone around him. It usually worked, too, because he could sweet talk his way in and out of just about anything. Teachers, police officers, and even parking cops were no match for Riley. I’d seen him weasel his way out of almost everything in the past three years that I’d known him.

Tall, dark, and handsome is how most people would describe him. He had hair that looked like a Ken doll’s, maybe a shade or two darker, but just as flawless. His eyes were the lightest green I’d ever seen, and they stood out even more because of his dark head of hair. Besides being quite handsome, Riley was also an amazing athlete. He played left wing on his intramural hockey team.

He was one of the worst womanizers, though, yet he was one of my favorite friends. No girl ever really seemed to stick for him. He was always finding some reason why they weren’t good enough. They’d start dating, seem to be getting along great, and then he’d be over at our place, telling us he was going to end things. He was always asking our advice for the best way to let whomever it was down easily.

I had a soft spot for the wounded-guys-turned-jerks like Riley. He had come to college with a serious girlfriend, who’d cheated on him midway through our first year. Caroline and I were the ones he opened up to. Well, I can’t say he really turned into a jerk. He was never mean. He just went through women relatively quickly.

I hit his arm at his kissing comment, knowing it was harmless, and changed the subject to his summer. After catching up, he noticed more people had arrived so he bowed playfully and went to make his rounds. I headed to grab another beer and found Caroline was refilling her glass, too.

“Where’s Nick?” I asked, looking around.

“He ran upstairs for a minute to use the bathroom. Isn’t he dreamy? I’m so glad he actually came. I was worried, now that the summer is over, it might be the end for us. He is talking about other things to do together, though, like fall and winter-themed type things, so at least he is still interested!”

For a minute, it almost seemed like Caroline was trying to be overly convincing about her relationship with Nick, but I shook off the feeing as soon as it came. What purpose would that serve? Plus, he’s here, what would she be making up? It felt strange having even thought of something like that about her.

“Of course he is still interested. Why wouldn’t he be? You’re perfect. Also, I think that’s the first time you’ve ever used the word dreamy in a non-mocking Ariya tone. Are you drunk?”

She stuck her tongue out at me and stepped around to stand next to me. “Have you seen Ashley’s guy yet?”

“No, but I’m sure we’ll be introduced the second he arrives. How does she meet all of these guys, seriously?” We started giggling and, as if on cue, Ashley walked up.

“Hey gals! This here is Devon. He is new this year, just a baby sophomore. I thought it’d be fun to invite him over and show him around.”

It took everything in me not to look at Caroline and burst out laughing at that moment, but I just shook the flavor-of-the-month’s hand and said, “Welcome to Kingsbrook.” He looked pleasant enough with his luscious lips, ruffled brown hair, and dark brown eyes. At first glance, he was fairly attractive, but it seemed funny that he was only a sophomore. He looked much older than that.

Something unsettling passed over me when he smiled at me, and I scolded myself for making any kind of judgment about him before we’d even spoken. Just because he hopped on the Ashley Train didn’t mean he was a bad guy. Flashing a quick smile back, I turned to see if Caroline had noticed anything off as well. She was acting as normal as ever. Well, as normal as she ever acted around Ashley. It must have just been me.

“How’d you all meet?” Curiosity was getting the better of me. We had only been back a couple hours and already we were being introduced to someone new.

“Oh, well, I met Devon hiking a couple weeks ago.”

“Hiking?” Caroline and I said in unison. I couldn’t help the eye contact on that one. Ashley didn’t normally do outdoorsy things like hike.

“Yep.” She smiled sweetly at Devon, who was smirking at me with an intensity behind his eyes that was making me a bit uncomfortable. Ashley seemed to notice it too.

“We hit it off right away, right babe?” Devon’s eyes flicked back to her and his smirk turned into more of a devilish grin. He didn’t answer her, though.

We didn’t even finish the conversation before she was dragging him away. She clearly wanted to parade him around as much as possible, or perhaps it was because she’d noticed the way Devon kept staring at me. Maybe this outfit looked strange or something.

“Well, on to more introductions,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll see y’all later.”

“That was weird,” I whispered to Caroline wondering if she too had noticed the attention Devon had been giving me.

“Huh? What was weird?” she asked a bit too quickly, which didn’t fit the casual tone she’d used in the question. Apparently, she didn’t think anything was off at all. I was probably losing my mind, or maybe the beer was getting to me. I shrugged it off and saw Nick walking back over to us. He kissed Caroline’s forehead and bent down to grab more beer. While he was leaning over, I saw Riley coming back towards us.

“Ariya! I’ve been looking for you. I wanted you to meet a friend of mine, James Rymer. He just joined the hockey team, and I told him he had to meet our cheerleaders.”

I made a face at him for the cheerleader comment before turning to see whom I was being introduced to. If Caroline and Ashley had handsome men on their arms, there wasn’t even a word to describe James. His light brown hair fell in his face ever so slightly, and beautiful, light blue eyes with darker spots scattered throughout them looked back at me. I’d never seen eyes like his before. His skin was flawless and his jaw defined. He was taller than me by a good bit. I am five-feet, eight inches, but had to tilt my head back slightly to see all of him. He had to be well over six feet tall.

James was wearing a black shirt that hugged his chest. I could tell he wasn’t overly buff, but he was defined, broad shouldered, and solid. My breath caught for a minute and I tried to recover swiftly.

I reached out my hand, “Ariya Adams.”

He smiled with one side of his mouth, and just said, “James.”

His voice was low and strong, like the kind of voice the guy off the cover of a romance novel should have. I tried to think of something clever to say, but my brain fogged. What’s wrong with me? I’d never acted like this around a guy.

“Are you new here?” I managed to pull myself together enough to start a conversation.

“Sort of. I’ve been here before, but left. I decided to come back and finish up my last year of school here.” His eyes danced as if he had a private joke about just being here for his senior year.

I was surprised at how many new introductions were taking place today. That was two guys who had transferred in, and now here’s another one thinking about it. For a small college, I thought that was kind of weird, especially since I don’t think we’d met anyone new since we were freshman. So far, we appeared to be off to an exciting final year.

“Where were you before?” I continued, not wanting to stop the conversation with him. His voice was captivating.

“I was working and just taking night classes in the city.” His answer was short, but since he wasn’t leaving the conversation, I assumed he was simply shy.

“Neat.” Neat? I seriously needed someone to save me from myself. Fortunately, Riley spoke up, ever the lifesaver.

“Yeah, James is going to play right wing on the team. We’re gonna be the dynamic duo on the ice this year. You should have seen him at practice this morning. He scored about three times on Johnny.”

Johnny was their goalie and another friend from freshman year. He currently lived with Riley and was actually a pretty good goalie. They had high hopes going into this year since they had almost won the school’s intramural championship last year. Caroline and I made it a point to go to every game to support them. It was always fun to watch them play. Plus, with all our friends on the team, what else were we going to do Friday nights?

“So, you’ve been roped into hockey, I see?” I smiled playfully. There was my inner social diva; I guess she just needed some encouragement.

He raised his eyebrow at me causing my heart to start pounding so loudly that I was sure he’d hear. “I hadn’t really played much before, but it seems like the popular thing to do around here.”

Caroline leaned over and introduced herself and Nick after that. We all stood talking for a bit before I decided I needed some air.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, once I refilled my beer again.

It only took a momentary touch on Caroline’s arm for her to tell Nick she needed some air too. We went out back on the balcony. I was surprised to find it empty, since this was usually the hot spot for partygoers to congregate. The keg was in the house instead of back here, so that was probably the only reason we had it to ourselves.

“Wow,” Caroline said. “I mean, you must think he’s something else, right?” As I turned towards her, she continued, “If there was ever a time for you to break your I-hate-boys phase, it’s now.”

“I love that you knew that’s what I wanted to talk about.”

“I haven’t seen you act that way around a guy in…well, ever, actually. Come on, you think he’s attractive, right?” She nudged my arm.

“I’m in an ‘I-hate-boys’ phase, Care. I’m not blind.”

“So, that’s a yes! I gotta say this is a nice change. For once you have a crush that I don’t have to convince you to like! Let’s get back in there and have some fun, shall we?” She held up her arm playfully. I hesitated, though.

“You think I should go for it? Ashley might decide she wants an upgrade from Devon and pounce,” I said, rather bitterly.

I wasn’t unattractive, and I had enough self-esteem to get me through most days as a confident woman. However, when it came to guys, I felt I couldn’t really compete with Miss Southern Belle 2012.

That was my one weak point. I could speak in front of large groups of people. I loved volunteering, and being involved in sports. I hopped right into everything and typically didn’t miss a beat. When it came to flirting and guys, I’d like to think I was decent at it, but my track record in the dating department proved otherwise. So many negative experiences can really mess with a girl’s head.

“Oh, shut it with the self-doubt crap. You’re ten times the woman Ashley is! Be yourself. He’s probably as stubborn as you are when it comes to the opposite sex.” She looked amused at her comment, and I frowned.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Her face continued to look like she was laughing to herself about something, which boggled me.

“All right, keep your secrets. Let’s go.”

As the words came out, Caroline held up her arm again, like she was escorting me to a ball. After giving her a you’ve got to be kidding look, we walked back inside. The boys were still talking by the keg right where we’d left them. When we walked back up, though, James said it was nice to meet us and that he was sure he would see us soon and walked away. So much for breaking the I-hate-boys phase.

I pretended not to care that the meeting was over. Then, I headed back over towards Riley and some other people I knew in order to give Caroline some alone time with Nick. After all, they were still newly dating, so I was sure they probably wanted some alone time.

 

After a couple more hours and a few more drinks, I decided it was time to call it a night. Snaking through the mass of people that now occupied Ashley’s apartment proved to be difficult. I finally ended up finding Caroline and Nick making out in the corner of the kitchen. Calling her name did no use over the blaring music that had steadily rose in volume over the course of the evening. I whistled, a trick I was proud of, and yelled louder. Hearing me finally holler her name made her look up – glassy-eyed and smiling.

“I’ll see you at home!” I yelled.

She nodded and went right back to Nick. Riley was by the front door with James. At least I’ll get to say goodnight, I thought to myself. I reached into Ashley’s closet and tugged out my jacket. As I went to slip it on, I felt hands assisting me from behind. Then, I heard Riley’s voice.

“You’re leaving? Are you sure you can get home safely? You want me to walk you?” He finished helping with my jacket and flirtatiously propped himself up on the doorframe blocking my exit. He had a tendency to be even more of a ladies’ man while drinking.

I ducked under his arm. “Goodnight Riley.” I smiled, and then turned to James. “Goodnight.” He nodded politely at me.

I heard Riley shouting after me, “You’ll give into me one of these days, Princess.”

Riley had been calling me “Princess,” forever. He had seen a picture of me with my dad, dressed up as Cinderella and Prince Charming for one of my birthdays as a kid, and he’d gotten a kick out of it. Silly boys, always thinking they were Prince Charming.

I headed down the stairs of the apartment building and rounded the corner to get to the path home where I bumped into another couple going at it. Geez, love is in the air this year! Scratch that, it was probably just lust and alcohol.

The guy looked up at me, and I recognized the couple was Ashley and Devon. Ah, love for her then and lust for him. I wanted to throw up at the sight of her tongue down his throat and his hands exploring her body in ways that should have been publically embarrassing for her. Come on, Ashley! When Devon made eye contact with me, I could swear his eyes were glowing. His cheeks were a bit sunken in and his skin looked dull as well. He had definitely looked more attractive inside. Out here, he looked crazy. Clearly, I must have had more to drink than I thought.

“Uhmm … sorry guys, I was just heading home. Thanks for the party, Ash. See you tomorrow!”

I rushed away from them as quickly as I could without breaking into an all-out sprint and headed towards the path. Why had this been such a weird evening with Ashley’s beau? Had his eyes actually been glowing? No, don’t be silly, I laughed, shaking my head at how ridiculous that sounded, even if it was just in my thoughts.

Ashley’s apartment is only about a five-minute walk from our apartment, so after a minute or two on the path, I could see the lights of my complex. The clearing was visible ahead when a low snarling noise caught my attention. It sounded far off in the distance, but it was still definitely a sound I was not used to hearing on my walk home. I turned around in order to look back the way I had came. The news story I’d heard earlier flashed through my head, almost like a warning. Then, I felt a chill down my spine. Just hurry home and lock the door, simple enough. It wasn’t that much further. Turning back around to continue towards my building, I was abruptly stopped in my tracks.

Standing right in front of me was a shaggy, growling animal. It was baring its teeth at me and almost looked like it was trying to make eye contact. Closing my eyes, I shook my head in an attempt to regain some sobriety. When I reopened them, the scene in front of me hadn’t changed, and it was far too real to be an illusion. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know how to react.

If I screamed, I was sure someone would hear me. I was close enough to my apartment where neighbors should be around. That is, if they weren’t out partying. I almost always headed back earlier than the rest of my friends. What if I had headed back earlier than the rest of the college student population in general? Then, no one would hear me.

We were at a standstill. Do I scream and make the animal nervous or do I just stand here waiting for it to leave? I’d never even seen an animal like this up close before. It worried me how similar this animal looked to the drawing the news crew had been showing on TV earlier in the evening. This wasn’t a hiking trail, though. This was a path near a town with lots of people. What in the world was the thing doing in a populated area like this?

As if it were reading my thoughts, the beast growled and put a paw forward towards me, its sharp claws digging into the dirt path. I held up my hands, trying to somehow get a message across that I wasn’t going to hurt the stupid creature. The huge wolf tilted its head as if it was enjoying watching the panic trickle over me like melting ice. I was frozen in place, and unable to make any kind of movement at that point. This was bad.

To my right there was rustling, as if trees and branches were being pushed out of the way. A blur shot across the path at the wolf. Both the blur and the wolf disappeared the second it happened. That’s when I felt something like a truck plow into me, knocking me off my feet, but surprisingly, not injuring me in any way.

I was on the ground, dazed and a bit winded from the sudden jolt. My eyes had been closed from the impact, and when I opened them, I was alone. There was no wolf, no blurry hurling objects, nothing. It was as if none of it had been real.

Sitting up, I shook my head like trying to shake off a bad dream. What in the world had just happened to me? I rolled myself up onto my hands and knees carefully. Am I dreaming?

“Ariya?” A soft voice came from the path in the direction of Ashley’s apartment.

Please, please, don’t let that be who it sounds like, I prayed. Struggling, my body refused to cooperate in time for me to get to my feet before the person calling my name came around the bend. My worst fears were confirmed. It was James. Of course he’d be the one to find me like this.

“Ariya, are you all right?” Concern laced through his beautiful voice.

I forced myself to chuckle through my embarrassment. “I’m the biggest klutz ever. I’m fine.” A smile came easier than I thought it would.

It’s not like I could tell him the truth. I didn’t even know the truth. What should I say, Well James, a second ago there was a wolf looking like he wanted to attack me, and then two blurry objects came out of nowhere. One hit the wolf and one hit me, which is why I’m on the ground out here. No, he already probably assumed I was crazy after finding me on my hands and knees in the woods in the middle of the night. He didn’t need me confirming it to him.

I finally had the wherewithal to stand. I felt his hands clasp around my arms, helping me up. It felt like he had just shocked me and I felt, well, actually, I wasn’t sure what this feeling was. Desire? I can’t say that it was a familiar feeling. Holy cow, Ariya, I thought, knock it off!

He continued helping me until I was fully standing. I pulled away, feeling like if he continued to touch me, I’d do something embarrassing like try to kiss him.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. A perfect sounding laugh came from him. I was sure my jaw had dropped slightly at my amazement that such a sound even existed.

“Why are you apologizing?” It was rhetorical, so I chose to ignore it.

“What are you doing out here?” I asked, curiously.

He smiled, “I live in one of the houses past these apartments.” He nodded his head in the direction of my complex.

“You live on Shab Row?”

Shab Row was the only set of houses past our apartment, and it tended to be the wealthy area. The Dean of Kingsbrook lived in one of those houses, and they were some of the oldest, but fanciest in Mineral Point. He seemed uncomfortable at my shock.

“My … uh, parents thought it would be best that I had a quiet place for myself. To study.” He shrugged, and I was impressed. Smart and gorgeous. He couldn’t be real, could he?

“Nice. Well, I’d better get going. Thank you for the help.” Walking away now could end all further awkwardness on my part.

“May I escort you home?” He took a step towards me.

Escort me? What century was I in?

“I live in those apartments,” I said, nodding my head toward the direction of the lighted area ahead of us. “It’s not far.”

“Well, you did fall already. Maybe I’ll just walk behind you to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” He grinned, and it was my turn to laugh.

Thankfully, the sky was dark. I just hoped it hid the color of my face as I blushed. “Okay, you’re right. Thanks.” It wasn’t truly far enough to make the effort necessary, but it was still nice to have his company. “How was your first Kingsbrook party?” I asked, wanting to hear his voice again as we walked.

“It has proven to be an interesting evening.”

He smiled down at me and I turned my face to try to hide the embarrassment his comment caused. This is what I had been hoping to avoid. Teasing was fine, but his presence did something to me I wasn’t used to feeling. Comments I would normally laugh off felt out of the ordinary.

“Yes well, it’s not every day you get to rescue a clumsy senior on her way home from a party, I guess.” I said sarcastically, rolling my eyes more at myself than at James.

He beamed at me, causing another flip-flop sensation to course through me. This was ridiculous. No man should make me feel this way. Maybe Caroline was right; it had been awhile since I’d had a full-blown crush. Perhaps I had just forgotten the feeling.

“Hopefully, you don’t make it a habit.”

“Oh, it’s too late for that, the clumsiness is a habit. However, having a stranger find me on my hands and knees in the woods is not, so I can at least try to work on that.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m a complete stranger.” He raised his eyebrow as he teased me.

I narrowed my eyes at him jokingly. “We’ll see.”

We were at the stairs leading up to my building when I thought of one more thing to bring up. “Could you maybe not mention finding me on the ground?”

He tilted his head curiously at me as if he didn’t understand why I would request something like that.

“I know it would be an awesome story at our next get together,” I started to explain,” but Caroline tends to be a bit of a mother hen when it comes to me. She can get overly protective, and if she knows I can’t even make it home on my own unscathed, I might not be let out of her sight for a while.” I chuckled and James nodded, knowingly.

“Sure. It’ll be our secret. Goodnight, Ariya.”

His smile was contagious, and my mouth was turned up in an over-the-top grin in response. “Thanks, James, for walking me home. Goodnight.”

I opened my door and shut it quickly. Leaning my head against the door, I tried to wipe the grin that was making my cheeks ache off of my face. I’ll try to play it a bit cooler next time I see him, I tried to convince myself. Yeah, right.

After tossing my keys on the table by the front door, I went to get ready for bed. It was a slow process since my mind was on constant replay of the evening. The encounter in the woods with that animal should have caused me more concern, or at least frightened me. Instead, the giddiness I felt walking home with James eclipsed any fears I previously had.

Shaking James from my thoughts rather forcefully, my brain focused on the incident with the wolf. What had that been? Had the wolf been toying with me? Was that even possible? Was it the same wolf that the hikers from the news story had encountered? So many questions flooded through my mind that I felt like my head was going to explode.

Besides just the wolf, there was that strange object that had knocked me out of the wolf’s path. I couldn’t think of what in heaven’s name would have been able to do that. Maybe I had been drunk and imagined most of it. I had no idea alcohol could cause such a vivid hallucinations. Perhaps that was it. I’d talk to Caroline about it tomorrow.

I had just asked James not tell Caroline about finding me on the ground, but what if I didn’t say something and she ended up getting hurt by the wolf thing? Crap! I was going to get hell from her for this. I’d probably never go home alone again. My conscience won out after my imagination conjured up more vivid scenes that included Caroline getting attacked because she wasn’t warned. I decided to err on the side of caution and call her.

I put my phone down after pushing the “end” button and stared at my ceiling. My willpower was now focused on trying to stay awake until Caroline got home, so I could ask her whether or not she had seen the animal. Now that I’d told her about the wolf, I might as well tell her the rest of it. I started fading in and out of sleep, but fought it by pulling out my book to read.

There was a flurry at the door. I heard it slam shut, followed by the sound of keys hitting the table. Uh, oh, were she and Nick fighting? It would be wrong to eavesdrop. I decided to pretend I was asleep, and then we could just catch up tomorrow. I slid my book under the covers and scooted down, trying to be quiet. Throwing the covers up close to my chin, I steadied my breathing into longer, heavier sighs.

Sometimes when Caroline got too protective of me, I would sleep when I wasn’t in a talking mood, so I had lots of experience. I could usually fool her. She was probably that way because she was an only child like me, so that pushed her to look out for me. She always threw in my face the fact that she was older and supposedly wiser. She was technically only a couple of months older, but she still used that as a reason to be the big-sister figure.

My door cracked open slowly, and I knew she was checking to make sure I was asleep. Then it closed. I could still hear muffled voices coming from the living room.

“She’s sleeping. He’s over-reacting. I can handle this. Just because my father isn’t the best there ever was doesn’t mean I’m not great at what I do. She’s my best friend. Of course, I want to keep her safe. It wasn’t a close call.”

“I know, babe, but you just have to go with the team thing. It’s too much for one person right now, no matter who you are.” Nick’s voice was soothing as he tried to calm Caroline from whatever had upset her.

“I think he’s confused about his feelings and he’s taking it out on me … it’s the first time he…”

The rest of the conversation was muddled completely. A door had opened and closed, so that must mean they were now in Caroline’s bedroom.

Sitting up in bed, I tried to process what I’d heard. It had been a strange conversation. Was she talking about me when she said her “best friend?” Whose father was the best and at what? I wanted to knock on her door and ask her what was going on, but with Nick there, I couldn’t, I would have to wait until we were alone. As I lie there planning out the inevitable conversation in my head, my body slowly began shutting down from the eventful evening and I drifted into a restless sleep.

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