Promise Excerpt

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Chapter 1

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. Occasionally, 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 ominous feeling on my unruly imagination, with it being twilight and the sky looking so foreboding. It was the perfect backdrop for one of my stories. The sun hung low—an eerie, orange ball glowing behind a shroud of haze, a column of steel-blue cloud 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 sinister sensation. Some kids from school stood near the top of the escalator as I stepped off. I’d witnessed before their favorite summer activity: dressing in all black and hassling people exiting the Metro station. So mature, but what can you expect? They were younger—they hadn’t graduated with me over a month ago—and apparently, still stuck in the rebellious phase that I’d never been through myself.

I usually took the elevator to circumvent them, but had been too distracted tonight.

“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. People 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, three houses down, standing in the middle of the street. It was too dark to see their features and 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 bizarre 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, while 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 this absurd couple and what they wanted with me, but my body kept moving. The bright lights of the commercial area I’d just left beaconed me to 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 what looked like a 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, expecting to see a wild beast, but 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 until 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— A freakin’ wolf?!

The beast moved closer, a low growl in its throat. Its stench of decaying corpses and rotting leaves overwhelmed my sensitive nose, the disgustingly sweet odor gagging me and forcing me to breathe through my mouth.

Pop! Another woman appeared, again out of nowhere. 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 a normal person 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 terrorize 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! My heart jumped into my throat as another man materialized in the darkness and strode toward me. 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 and 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.

My sixth sense continued shouting conflicting alarms, everyone’s intentions so strong. Good and Evil both screamed in my head and I couldn’t tell which this new person was.

But then he turned to face the women and their expressions darkened. And I knew. He was on our side. I swatted down a leap of hope, though. 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’ve 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.

“We need to go.”

I forced my eyes open and 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.

“Hmm?”

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. One of her quirks. 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, not in the mood to challenge her now. My head hurt too much to argue, feeling like someone jabbed around in my brain while I slept. Also, I’d seen the stony look on Mom’s face before: Drop it, the look said.

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. That wasn’t the plan. Mom was supposed to end it 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.

My memory felt like a ripped-up photo taped back together but missing vital pieces. 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 as 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. I was actually 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 and braced myself for her reaction.

“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 couldn’t.

Mom held our secrets tightly, even from me, and I’d given up pleading 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. When other families’ skeletons included domestic violence, sexual abuse or various addictions, ours seemed rather innocuous. After all, they were just weird quirks. Of course, it was annoying and frustrating that I couldn’t know why we had them, but when I let myself feel normal, I often forgot to be annoyed and frustrated. So most of the time, I pretended I didn’t care and allowed myself to live behind a façade of normalcy. Because all I really wanted was to have a normal life—a career as an author, true love, a family.

But 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 presented an easy opportunity for poking around. I volunteered to unpack the house while Mom prepared to open the bookstore. 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, though. 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 its execution.

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.

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Chapter 2

 

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 peculiarities, 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 seven minutes. I rushed through the library, dodging tables and students, and practically ran down the stairs and into the lobby.

Evil? Good! (evil?) No, very good! My sense screamed loudly, surprising me.

I stopped dead in my tracks and my eyes scanned the area. Did they find me again? No. Everyone here looked perfectly normal, going about their business of checking out books at the nearby front desk. No one paid me any attention. But that wasn’t the only reason the alarms surprised me. My sense had never questioned itself before, never sounded so confused. What’s going on? Who is it? I inhaled a deep breath. My sense had settled on good. That’s all that mattered. And I didn’t have time to worry about anything else. I had to go or I’d be late.

I rounded the corner to the door and slammed right into a large, hard body. Sweet and tangy. Mmm . . . . 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, where a syllabus already waited on the desk. The instructor stood at the head of the room, 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 a threatening feeling, but an uncomfortable sensation 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.

Wow. Beautiful. That was all I could think through the haze filling my brain, obscuring any other thoughts. 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. He 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. And I wondered how he’d beat me to class.

“Most of your projects will be done as teams,” the professor droned. “You’ll be with the same team throughout the semester. I won’t make any changes, so I suggest you learn to work out any differences. 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 his one-liners were laugh-out-loud funny. A funny mathematician—not an oxymoron. Who knew? 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 and 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. Well, 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 determine the nudge’s meaning.

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 of people sat on the top step, talking. I walked down the stairs 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. Hmmm…sweet, like mangos and papayas, citrusy like lime, and spicy like…hmmm…I think sage…and just a hint of man. My quirky sense of smell was not only stronger than normal, but also allowed me to pick out the individual layers of a complex scent. His was natural—it didn’t have the chemical undertone like cologne or soaps did—a fresh fragrance, making me think of sitting in the sun on a warm day.

“Uh, yeah,” I muttered. The lamp over us cast its light directly on his spellbinding face, making my mind foggy and unable to form coherent words.

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 like chocolate. 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. Um, sorry about running into you earlier.”

“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, mentally replaying the five-minute conversation with Tristan and chastising myself for acting like a schoolgirl with her first crush.

“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, though, prickles of fear trailed down my spine. I’d have to walk to my car alone, in the dark, and that scared the hell out of me. I was probably just extra jumpy from my sense’s false alarm earlier, but it felt like the opportune time and place for an attack. My attackers probably didn’t even know where I lived now, but I had no guarantees. They’d found me once. They could find me again. If they even existed.

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 inhaled a deep breath.

“I’ll walk you out to the parking lot,” Tristan offered, slinging his own backpack over his shoulder. He glanced at my fist full of keys. “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. 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 settle—to click into place—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.”

“The Book Nook? The one on Fifth?”

“Yeah, you know it?”

He lifted his chin in a nod. “I live in the Cape, too. I noticed it was re-opening soon.”

“In a few weeks. 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, though, if she ever hooked up with him. 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 eyebrows shot up. “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.

Before I left, I put the top down. The balmy air hung with humidity, but I hoped the wind on the highway would equate to a cold shower and douse my internal heat.

 

***

 

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 pointless 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. Of course, that meant seeing Tristan again, but after a delicious dream the other night and waking up to the disappointment that it could never come true, I’d told myself to stop thinking about him.

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 room, talking to a couple of scantily clad girls. He stretched 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 and before my brain registered that I moved, I was already back there. So much for not thinking about him.

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,” I said, waving my syllabus as I took my seat.

He held up his own copy. “Do you really think I enrolled in a class without knowing what it was? Give me a little credit, please.”

My face flushed. “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. I tried to focus on the instructor’s lecture, 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.

Unable to control myself, I snuck a glance at him out of the corner of my eye. I was shocked to see his face full of pain or anger. I wondered what he was thinking. Was this feminine junk too much for his manly ego? The next time I peeked, though, he seemed perfectly fine. 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, sending a tingle up my spine.

“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.”

Of course, 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 harder. 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 between classes. Each time we were together, I felt another click in my heart and that was probably not good.

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. For weeks, 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. Even when he’d flirt with me or get this certain look in his eyes or shift his body closer to mine, I didn’t mind. Well, my body didn’t. It would zing with anticipation of his touch. But my mind still protested, worried he’d be like . . . others. Then he’d pull back, as if there was a line I didn’t want drawn but was there nonetheless—one neither of us could bring ourselves to cross. Yet.

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.

But I was okay with that. With nowhere to go and Tristan consuming my thoughts, I easily drifted back to my comfort zone—hiding behind a mask of normalcy. I wanted nothing more than to be normal, just to have a chance with him. Such foolish desires, on so many levels.

I just didn’t know how foolish.

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Chapter 3

 

I used to think Mondays were nothing but a rude awakening from the lovely dream of the weekend. Now I looked forward to them. Tristan and I spent little time together on Fridays and I didn’t see him at all on the weekends, so when each Monday finally came around, I was ridiculously giddy as I entered our women’s studies class. Except for the fifty minutes of calculus, we spent from nine-thirty in the morning to ten at night together. Of course, we were in class and team meetings the majority of the time, but sometimes it was just us.

One such Monday in late September, we sat outside on the quad’s lawn. The air was still warm, but we didn’t drown from the humidity. I kicked off my flip-flops and sat on the grass, absorbing the sunshine. I closed my eyes and tilted my face to the sun for a few minutes, but I felt Tristan watching me, making me self-conscious. I surrendered and reluctantly pulled my books out of my bag.

Tristan had a notebook on his lap and pencil in hand, already working on something. I left my calculus for later, not wanting to bother him, and pulled out the communications text instead. I still had three chapters to read before I could even start on the paper he was probably already writing. He was always several steps ahead of me in our assignments, but, for some reason, still had me review his nearly perfect essays.

I stole a glance at him one more time before delving into the text. He caught my eye, smiled and winked, bringing that fog into my brain. Why does he do that to me? Apparently pleased with my dazed reaction, he grinned wider and bent over his notebook. The way his pencil flew over the page, I could tell he wasn’t writing. He was drawing. But when I leaned over to get a look, he pulled the book up so I couldn’t see and shook his head. I blew out an annoyed breath and, lifting my chin with petulance, I turned to my book. He chuckled under his breath.

“Hey, Tristan,” a vaguely familiar female voice called from behind me a little later.

He glanced over my head and his body went rigid.

“Hey,” he muttered.

“We’re going to the Phi Kaps’ house for a pool party. Wanna come?” a different female asked as they came closer.

He shot them a strange look, almost like he was angry.

“On a Monday?” he asked, his voice full of skepticism. I could hear something else underneath—a steely hardness.

“It’s the Phi Kaps. Any day is good enough for them,” the first girl said. “So, you coming?”

The girls stood by his side now, towering over him as he remained seated. If he looked up, he’d have an eyeful of long legs in short shorts and big boobs in tight tops, but, for some unfathomable reason, he looked at me instead. I recognized the girls from our women’s studies class and they were exactly who I’d picture Tristan with—a much better match than me, no doubt. Apparently, they felt the same. They didn’t give me so much as a glance.

I wondered if Tristan was the college party type. There was definitely something edgy about him. And what warm-blooded male would pass up a pool party with college girls—especially these girls?

“No, thanks,” he replied, holding my eyes, the steely undertone still there.

I blinked in surprise. Both girls’ mouths fell open. They obviously weren’t accustomed to rejection. They glanced down at the notebook in his lap, shot their eyes at me and then back at him.

“Whatever,” they both huffed and stomped off.

Tristan relaxed as he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I didn’t understand his rejection until it occurred to me he was just being polite.

“You can go, if you want,” I said. “You don’t have to stay here with me.”

He smiled. “Not interested. In going, I mean.”

“Seriously. I’m used to hanging by myself.”

His smile faded and his eyes flickered. “Do you want me to go?”

Yeah, right. I definitely didn’t want him to go. It made me sad and lonely to just think about it. But he didn’t need to know that. How did I get here, where being alone was a bad thing?

“Does it matter what I want?” I asked, a slight edge to my tone.

“It matters very much to me,” he murmured.

My heart skipped. I stared at the ground, my face hot, and picked at a blade of grass.

“No, I don’t want you to go,” I whispered. “I just don’t know why you’d want to stay. Most people don’t hang around this long.”

“I’m not most people.”

He definitely was not like most people, but I knew he wasn’t thinking along the same lines I was. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just returned to reading my textbook, hoping he would forget the conversation.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked later as we walked to one of the on-campus cafés before communications class.

I shrugged and looked up at him. “You can always ask.”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Ah. So, then . . . will you answer a question for me?”

“Depends . . .”

“I guess I’ll try my luck.” He peered down at me as he opened the door to the café and stepped back for me to enter. Holding doors open for me seemed to be second nature to him, just like walking me to my car every day and other gentlemanly behavior. No, he wasn’t like other people. “What did you mean earlier when you said most people don’t hang around this long?”

Crap. Crap, crap, crap. I should have known he wouldn’t forget it. Why had I even said it? I quickly ordered a salad and used the time as he ordered his own food to come up with a non-answer.

“So . . . you’re not going to answer?” Tristan asked after we sat at a table by the window.

I shrugged. “I just meant most guys wouldn’t pass up a pool party with hot college girls to do homework.”

He leaned toward me, looking into my eyes. The gold sparkles in his were bright and enrapturing. My breath caught. “That’s not what you meant.”

I forced myself to breathe, my head swimming from the intensity of his gaze.

“It’s pretty close,” I finally said. He continued staring at me expectantly. I sighed. Then I tried to switch directions with my own question. “Do you know those girls well?”

He shook his head. “Only from class. Girls like that, though . . . they seem to think I want to know them.”

“And you don’t?” I scoffed.

“No.”

I didn’t understand him. “Is that why you passed it up?”

His eyes narrowed and the corners of his lips twitched as if fighting a smile. “I see what you’re doing. You answer mine first.”

I pursed my lips together as his eyes held mine, challenging me. I finally pulled my gaze from his and stared at my uninspiring salad. “Seriously . . . that pool party was an example. Most people wouldn’t hang out for hours just doing homework and discussing trivial things.”

I didn’t add “with me,” although that was the original meaning. It would point out something was wrong with me. I expected him to lose interest before he ever knew those things.

“I haven’t found any of our conversations trivial,” he replied. I looked back up at him and tilted my head, an eyebrow cocked. “You have?”

I snorted. “It’s not exactly exciting stuff.”

His eyes flickered. “So . . . you’re bored?”

“No!” I sighed again, getting frustrated. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Are you going to tell me what you mean, then? Or are we just going to continue in circles?” He sat back in his chair and took a bite of his apple. A drop of juice glistened on his bottom lip and the image of licking it clean for him flashed in my mind. I blinked it away. He still sat there, waiting for my answer.

I sighed yet again; it was nearly a groan. How could he do this to me? He was too irresistible for my own good.

“Fine.” I took a deep breath and spewed out the words. “I really don’t get why you choose to hang out with me, doing nothing special, when there are so many other things you could be doing with so many other people. Most people would be long gone by now.”

“I told you, I’m not like most people.” He leaned forward, over the table, his eyes intense again. My insides quivered and warmed under his relentless gaze. “I’d rather hang out, doing nothing special with you because you are . . . special.”

My eyes widened. He moved his hand toward mine, as if to take it. I had to will my own hand to remain still before it jumped out to his and beat him to the first move. My skin tingled and my heart beat erratically. Before he even touched me, though, a quiet groan rumbled in his throat and his hand was suddenly in his lap. His eyes broke from mine and he looked away for the first time since we sat down. I exhaled slowly and quietly, allowing a moment of silence to pass as I recovered.

“You obviously don’t know me very well,” I finally muttered.

He sat back again and his gaze came back to me, looking as calm as always, as if nothing had just happened. “Hmm . . . I know you and I are very much alike.”

“In what alternate reality? We seem to be complete opposites.”

He was perfect. I was ordinary . . . except for the weird things. He was a math whiz and I was an English major. He was athletic; I was far from it. He was beautiful. I was . . . me.

He nodded, a thoughtful look on his face. “Hmm . . . yes, in many ways we are opposites, you’re right. But, we’re much more alike than you realize. You’re not like most people either.”

So he did notice. Yet here he was.

“And that’s why I passed it up. College parties are no good for me. Trust me. You, on the other hand, are very good for me.” He lifted his eyebrows, as if asking if I understood. I just stared at him for a long moment.

“I don’t get it,” I finally whispered.

He shrugged. “You don’t have to. It’s just the way it is.”

That was about as deep as it ever went for the next few weeks. We never came back to that strange conversation, when I had let my guard down more than I ever had before. We both seemed to notice there was some kind of connection between us and neither of us could break it. Perhaps he was right. Maybe we were more alike than I realized. I felt another click in my heart as another piece settled into place.

 

***

 

October brought mid-terms and, of course, Halloween. Mom buzzed excitedly about her first real store event since the Grand Opening—a Halloween party for the kids. I had put off serious studying for exams because I was spending so much time writing. The first few chapters poured themselves out of my head and I was falling in love with my main characters. I preferred spending time with them than with the overzealous feminists or derivatives and functions. With mid-terms looming, I had to switch gears.

First, though, I promised to help Mom decorate the store for Halloween before it opened one morning. Mom had hired her first employee, Owen, even before the Grand Opening, insisting that I spend my time writing, not working. But I wanted to do something for her since she did so much for me. And, admittedly, it was also for selfish reasons. I hoped it would assuage my guilt for sneaking around so much, even if I hadn’t learned a thing about our background.

“Good morning, little dudette,” Owen greeted when I entered the bookstore bright and early that Thursday morning.

He looked like he should still be in college, but wasn’t. I didn’t ask, but I guessed he’d dropped out to enjoy the Florida lifestyle of sun and fun, although I thought he was on the wrong coast. He seemed to belong in California, hanging out with the surfers.

I grunted. I’d stayed up until one in the morning reading about women playwrights and their portrayal of female characters.

“Hmm . . . not a good morning?” Owen asked.

“It’s eight a.m., I don’t have classes and I’m not in bed. What could be good about it?” I muttered.

He nodded and laughed. “Yeah, know what ya mean.”

I watched as he enthusiastically cleaned the counter, contradicting his words.

“You look like a morning person to me.”

He threw me a disgusted look, though his sapphire-blue eyes gleamed with humor. “I take that as an insult.”

“So you’re not always like this?”

He scrubbed his hand through his blond hair as he seemed to think about it. “I have no idea. Don’t see this time of day whenever I can help it.”

He winked at me. It was cute, but it didn’t have that mind-fogging effect Tristan’s wink did. He wasn’t ugly or even unattractive, but . . . well, not Mr. Beautiful. In fact, in the looks department, Owen compared to Tristan like I compared to Mom—pleasant, but not striking. She thought Owen looked like a sweet James Dean, one of her favorite actors from the old movies she loved so much.

“Honey, you look exhausted,” Mom said as she stepped out from a row of bookcases. “Maybe you’re trying to do too much. Owen and I can take care of this.”

“I’m fine. I just need some caffeine. I think I’ll go get some coffee across the street before we do this.”

“Why don’t you two go get some for all of us?” she said. “Take a five out of the drawer.”

Mom didn’t excite easily, but the way she gushed about Owen—how great he was, such a good worker, funny, yada, yada—you’d think he’d stepped right out of the pages of a book about Mr. Right. When I asked her why she didn’t go out with him, she said she needed a man-break. Besides, she’d said, he was closer to my age than hers. Yep, she was trying to set us up. Hence, sending us both to do a one-person job.

“That’s okay, Owen,” I said. “I think I can manage.”

I tried to hurry across Fifth, the main business street of Cape Heron, but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. It still longed for my warm, comfy bed. I’d been surprised to find the late October mornings so cool. There was a bigger difference in seasons down here than I expected, although they were subtle changes—the mornings were cooler, the highs hit the low eighties instead of the nineties and it didn’t rain every afternoon like it did throughout the summer. As I headed to the coffee shop, I enjoyed the salty breeze off the nearby Gulf of Mexico, letting it awaken my senses.

The Cape was a sleepy little resort town—at least it had been when we moved here in the middle of summer—among many dotting the Gulf Coast between Sarasota and Fort Myers. The region had been growing busier recently as the first snowbirds left their summer homes in the north and came south for the winter, so I wasn’t surprised to find the coffee shop busy.

It was actually an old-style diner with wood and vinyl booths and a row of peg-like stools pinned in front of the counter. The smells of smoky bacon, sweet pancakes and pungent coffee mixed in the air, reminiscent of the many diners we stopped at during our moves. I also smelled the residue of last night’s old-lady night cream and Ben-Gay on the elderly couple in front of me.

While I waited in line, I observed people, a habit I learned years ago when I started writing fiction. People-watching was fun, something I could do with all of my alone time, and I learned a lot to use in my characters. I was lost in thought while watching an older man with gray caterpillar eyebrows and a matching mustache sip his coffee and read a newspaper at the counter. His mustache crawled as he silently moved his lips while reading. He’d make a great werewolf, perhaps a pack leader.

“Hello, sexy Lexi,” a lovely voice murmured in my ear, raising the hair on the back of my neck.

I spun around to find Tristan just behind me, leaning over, very close. Mmm . . . he smells so good.

“Sorry, you don’t like Lexi, do you?”

Actually, I love the way it sounds from you. Did he really call me sexy?

“It wasn’t the Lexi part,” I said pointedly.

His eyes sparkled brighter. “So, I can call you Lexi?”

“Not in public.” I never went by Lexi specifically because of that nickname.

“But in private is okay,” he said. It wasn’t a question. And he followed it with his devastating smile, making certain parts of my body tighten. My turn was up and the cashier had to ask me three times for my order before I even realized she was talking to me.

“Make that four coffees,” Tristan said to the cashier as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. “I got it.”

“Business expense,” I said, holding up Mom’s money folded between my index and middle finger.

“Save it. You can have the receipt and she still gets the expense.” He paid while saying this, so I reluctantly stuffed the bill and the receipt in my jeans pocket with a scowl. I didn’t like owing him.

I grabbed little cups of cream and packets of sweetener as I waited for the order. When the four cups were placed on the counter, I tried to figure out how I would carry three of them.

“Let me help,” Tristan said.

He grabbed one of the Styrofoam cups just as I did. An electric pulse flew through my hand and up my arm as our fingers touched. I flinched and looked up at him. He smiled and a gleam sparked in his eyes. He felt it, too, it seemed, but hadn’t pulled back. It was, admittedly, a pleasurable sensation. It was the first time we’d actually touched—except when I collided with him that first night. When there had also been a shock. Weird . . . I took the other two cups and walked out without a word.

My stomach tightened as we crossed the street—Mr. Beautiful and my goddess-like mother were about to meet. The cowbell on the front door jangled when we walked in and Mom came from the back room, her arms loaded with glossy hardcover books. She looked up at me, then behind me at Tristan. She stopped dead and the books crashed to the floor. Her mouth fell open, as did mine. Mom never dropped things—she had excellent reflexes. She just stood there stiffly, still staring at him. Please, please don’t let them . . .

“Um, Sophia?” I said, puzzled by her reaction. It wasn’t exactly what I expected.

She continued glaring at Tristan and I realized I should make introductions, but my voice trailed off in the middle of them. Mom paid absolutely no attention to me and I suddenly felt like the outsider. Her eyes narrowed tightly at Tristan as she lifted her chin. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Tristan just barely nod. Mom, almost imperceptibly, tilted her head in response. And then, to my complete embarrassment, she turned on her heel and marched to the back room. She barked something to Owen and he rushed out, stiffened when he saw Tristan, then nodded and hurriedly picked up the books.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Sure, no problem.” Tristan still watched the doorway to the backroom, as if expecting her to come back out . . . or wanting to follow her.

I moaned internally.

“Thanks for the coffee.” I made my voice light so it wouldn’t betray my feelings of defeat and disappointment.

He pulled his eyes away from the backroom and turned to me.

“My pleasure. I’ll see you later.” He leaned closer and whispered, “Bye, sexy Lexi.”

Stunned, I looked up at him. He flashed a smile, then strode out of the store, leaving me in a daze. Could he possibly . . . ? Not him and Mom? Maybe . . . just maybe? My heart sped with hope.

But then I remembered Mom.

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