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Excerpt for Remington's Tower (Maple Ridge #1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Remington’s Tower



Katharine Sadler




Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2016 by Katharine Sadler

All Rights Reserved.




CHAPTER ONE



“There you go, sis, that’s the last box.” Byron dropped a box, clearly labeled fragile, on the linoleum floor with a crash and a tinkle. He winced at the sound, but then gave me a smile so wide and pretty, I swear his white teeth glinted. Even at just-turned-twenty-one, Byron believed his charm could get him out of any trouble he got into, and into every sort of trouble he wanted to get into.

“Thanks,” I said. I surveyed the small dorm room, with its two twin beds, two desks with wooden chairs, and two closets. One side of the room was empty, the other was stacked with my three boxes and two duffel bags of stuff. After a long drive to campus and a lifetime of no social life, the last thing I felt like doing was staying in that room and unpacking. I grabbed my football from the top box and tossed it to Byron. “Wanna show me the campus and throw the ball around a little?”

He grinned and pitched the ball back. “Some other time, Remington. I’ve got frat stuff to do. You should come over tonight and I’ll introduce you to the guys.”

By introduce, he meant let them all know I was strictly off-limits. Still, it was the only invitation I’d gotten, and I wasn’t about to waste my first night of freedom sitting on my rear in my dorm room. “Yeah, sure. I’ll be there.”

A girl, with thick, dark curls that cascaded to her waist and a curvy body covered in a daffodil yellow sundress, walked into the room. An older man followed her with a huge box that seemed to stagger him a bit.

“Invite your new friend,” Byron said, before he took the box from the older man, set it on the floor, and vanished.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Remy. You must be Francesca.” I had been looking forward to move-in day at Maple Ridge University for so long, I’d probably read the letter Francesca sent me to introduce herself as my new roommate at least six-hundred times. I wasn’t sure we had much in common, but I was determined to like her.

“Call me Frankie, please,” she said, and stuck her hand out. I shook it and puzzled through what she’d just said. She’d spoken so fast, it sounded like CallmeFrankieplease. “This is my dad,” she said, just as quickly. Her father, a tall, narrow man with grey hair and wearing pressed slacks and a Maple Ridge University sweatshirt, shook my hand without a word and left, for more boxes I assumed.

I plopped down on my bed and watched as Frankie unpacked the box Byron had placed on the floor. Like a modern day Mary Poppins, she pulled out exactly what she needed in the exact order she needed it. She made her bed, hospital corners and all, and placed a flowery, pink duvet on top. I watched her as she worked, and her dad delivered three more boxes, and wondered if I could convince her to make my bed, too.

It’s not that I wasn’t capable of making my own bed or that I didn’t know how. I’d gotten into college, I could figure out how to make a bed. It’s just that I only ever made my bed when I had new clean sheets to put on it, and I never bothered getting it to look as cozy as Frankie’s bed looked. Of course, that probably had a lot to do with the fact that my sheets were grey flannel and I’d inherited the blue, plaid bedspread when my oldest cousin, Keats, had gone off to college. And I only had one pillow. Frankie had mounds of pillows that made her bed look more like a lounge than a place to sleep.

Growing up with four older cousins and an uncle, all of whom treated me like one of the guys, I hadn’t had much exposure to feminine or frou-frou décor. And I had to admit, as much as I might die before I’d admit it to my cousins, I really liked what she had going on. It looked homey and cozy and just made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I had some serious bed envy. I was already contemplating getting really drunk, for the first time in my life, and crashing on her bed “by mistake,” just to find out firsthand how comfy it was. Surely she wouldn’t kick a helpless drunk girl out of her bed. If I was drunk, though, I probably wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate that bed. And I probably wouldn’t remember it if I did. I studied the bed, considering how far I’d go to try it out.

Frankie met my gaze, and I realized I’d been staring, probably with lust in my eyes. I gave her a smile which I hoped didn’t appear lascivious, and realized her side of the room was unpacked and perfect. The girl loved flowers and pastel colors, but she also had a definite eye for decorating. I felt sorry that she’d gotten stuck with me for her roommate, I was totally going to crinkle her vibe. Yes, I made that phrase up, see above where I explained I was the product of a sheltered life. I grew up in the mountains and rarely, okay never, left my uncle’s property. The only people I associated with who were remotely close to being in my age bracket were my cousins, the youngest of whom is Byron. Byron is only five months older than me,

“Would you like some help unpacking?” Frankie said, her voice still fast and a bit breathless, like she was nervous. I hoped I hadn’t made her nervous. She probably sensed my covetous bed thoughts.

I should have been the one who was nervous, since I’d never been out in the real world before, but I was bubbling with an energy and a desire to see everything that was choking me a bit and making it hard to breath. “Your bed looks really comfortable,” I said. “Do you mind if I…?” I gestured to the bed, eyebrows raised in question and surprise at my own audacity. I had a bad habit of saying whatever was on my mind.

My strange request seemed to relax Frankie and she smiled. “Sure. The mattress is what makes the bed, but you’re welcome to try out my pillows,” she said, speaking at a normal pace. She had a lovely voice, delicate but a bit raspy. “It probably seems silly to have so many pillows, but I usually study on my bed and the pillows help.”

I leapt to my feet and settled on her bed, sighing in amazement. The standard-issue dorm mattress left a lot to be desired, but that pile of pillows was heavenly and the duvet was so soft I felt like I’d landed in a cloud. “This is amazing.”

I looked over at her, where she was leaning against the doorframe, watching me. I expected her to look at me like I was crazy, but her expression was more one of surprise and delight and…wonder?

I stood. “I’m not really in the mood to unpack,” I said. “Why don’t we go meet the rest of our suitemates?”

Frankie’s brow crinkled. “Um, okay.” Her expression shifted to concern and I thought I began to understand something about her. My family was never shy around me, but my cousin, Tennyson, was shy and he’d told me what it was like to feel that way, to want to talk to people and find himself unable to do so. Never getting to leave our land, I’d begged all of my cousins for stories of the world beyond it and they’d usually been happy to oblige me. Of course, I read books and watched television and movies, but none of that compared to their stories of the real world.

I stopped my forward momentum, did my best to tamp down my raging need to experience life, and considered her feelings. “Is there something else you’d rather do?”

Something like shock dawned on her face. “Um, well, no. No of course not.”

She was a terrible liar, like my cousin, Barrett, who always lost at poker because he couldn’t bluff to save his life. All of my cousins were named after poets, Lord Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and John Keats were there namesakes. My aunt loved poetry, and she named her sons after her favorites. My uncle said she’d had big dreams and had wanted to see the world and poetry was a way for her to escape. Eventually, she escaped in a more final way, but that was before I went to live with my uncle. “It’s okay if you’d rather do something else. I’m up for just about anything.”

She dropped her eyes to the floor. “Whereareyougoingtosleep?” She spoke so fast I only caught the word sleep.

“You want to sleep?”

She blushed a bright red, but she met my gaze, the determination in her eyes making her look different, fierce and sure of herself. “No, I don’t want to sleep,” she said, obviously forcing herself to slow her speech. “Don’t you want to make your bed? So you’ll have somewhere to sleep tonight?”

I glanced at my bed and shrugged. She had a point. “The trouble is,” I said. “I have no idea which box the sheets and bedspread are in. I don’t want to spend the afternoon stuck in here looking for them.”

“I can help you,” she said, her voice as soft as a mountain breeze. “You only have three boxes.”

It seemed like she really wanted to help me, and I could definitely use the help. “Okay,” I said. “I’d appreciate that.”

Frankie pulled a notebook and a pen from her desk. She opened the notebook, cracking the spine and sighing a bit when she did, and wrote Remington’s boxes on top of the first page.

“Remy,” I said. No one called me Remington, except my uncle and my cousins. Okay, so everyone I knew called me Remington, but I wanted to be Remy at college. I wanted a new name to go with my new life.

“Hmmm?” she said, like she didn’t understand, but she didn’t even look at me as she took a box cutter from her desk drawer and ripped into my first box. Passive she might be, but I wasn’t getting anywhere near her list.

After an hour, my bed was made with neat hospital corners, and Frankie had a complete inventory of what each of my boxes contained. She had numbered each box and written the number on the box and on her inventory list. She had even convinced me to unpack and put away at least half of my clothes, which I did to make up for her getting stuck with a lazy slob for a roommate.

“Wow,” I said, surveying the room. “You’re really good at that.”

“I know,” Frankie said. Then she gasped and slammed a hand over her mouth. “Oh, my stars. That was rude of me. I’m so sorry. I usually never brag.”

I almost laughed, but I was pretty sure it would hurt her feelings. “It’s not bragging when it’s true. You should totally own it.”

She gave me a beaming smile.

“Let’s go meet our suitemates,” I said. Her smile vanished, but she followed me out of the room.

Our third-floor suite consisted of a living room, surrounded by three double bedrooms. The door to exit the living room led outside to the balcony and stairwell, where we had a view of academic buildings and a few trees. The common living area was empty and the doors to the other rooms were closed.

“Maybe we should just hang out in the living room, until someone comes out and wants to be social,” Frankie said, her voice fast and breathy again.

Frankie seemed to have gone beyond nervous to terrified, and I hated to see anyone afraid. I understood how fear could eat away at the sand under your feet until you were drowning without even realizing what happened. I faced Frankie and put my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay,” I said. “I like you, Francesca Lewis, so you already have one friend at college.”

“Oh,” Frankie said, studying me like maybe she thought I was making fun of her. I stared back at her with only calm compassion in my eyes, or at least what I imagined calm compassion looked like. “Okay,” she said. “It’s just…I’m not good at meeting new people. This is the first time I’ve ever been away from home for longer than a night.”

“I’ve never been away from home for even a night until now,” I said. If that was the worst flaw she brought into that dorm room, she was already light years better than me. “I’ll do most of the talking. If you feel uncomfortable, just clear your throat and I’ll make an excuse for you to leave.”

She nodded and swallowed hard. “I’ll be fine,” she said. “I need to learn to be more outgoing and push myself out of my comfort zone.” She hesitated, her cheeks pinking again. “I like you, too.”

It was official, I’d made my first friend ever. I bit my lip and bent my knees so that I wouldn’t shout and jump up and down. “Good.”

I knocked on the first door and a tiny girl with a blonde pixie cut and a book in her hand peeked out. “Hi,” she said. “I was just about to come out to meet everyone, but I wanted to finish this one chapter.” Bell spoke in a genteel southern drawl that was as slow as molasses, the perfect counterpart to Frankie’s fast talking. If I closed my eyes while she talked, I could picture her in a hoop skirt, standing on a verandah. Her eyes dropped back down to her book as soon as she’d finished talking.

“Whatever you’re reading,” I said, “I want to borrow it when you’re done.”

She looked up and smiled. “Sure, but you’ve probably read it before. Wuthering Heights?” Her green eyes flashed with excitement as she spoke.

“I haven’t read that one,” I said. It was on a reading list for my home school curriculum, but I’d chosen a Sherlock Holmes book instead. “We can meet you out in the lounge if you want to finish that chapter first.”

She dipped her head and I thought she hadn’t heard me, but then she shut the book with a snap and smiled up at us. “Done. Come on in.” She threw her door open wide and gestured for us to enter. “I’m Liza-Bell, but most everyone just calls me Bell.”

Bell was wearing glasses and a retro-looking, blue dress with a bell skirt and brilliant red belt, and her side of the room matched her clothing style not even a little bit. It was just books, books, and more books stuffed in every conceivable space. The other side of the room, like mine, was full of boxes but absent a human.

“Where’s your roommate?” I asked.

“I haven’t seen her. All I know is that her name’s Alexandria and she has a boyfriend who’s a junior here.”

“This is my roommate, Frankie,” I said, waving Frankie in. She left her spot in the doorway, entered reluctantly, and sat down next to me on the vacant bed. “I’m Remy.”

“Where are y’all from?” Bell asked. “I’m from Savannah, Georgia originally, but I’ve lived in Las Vegas for the last six years.”

“I’m from Rollingsworth, West Virginia,” I said.

“I’m from right down the road,” Frankie said, her words slamming together like they were in a mosh pit. “Richmond, Virginia.”

Bell gave me a quick wide-eyed glance, but covered quickly. “It’s nice to meet you both,” she said, her voice changing to a softer tone, honey and gentle, like she’d just realized we were fragile and speaking too loud might damage us.

“Have you met our other suitemates?” I asked.

Bell nodded. “I met Ella, but she had to run off to work. Her roommate is Selene, but she isn’t getting in until tomorrow.”

“So,” I said, dropping my eyes to the floor to hide my disappointment. “It’s just the three of us, then.” Bell seemed nice, but I needed to do something to quiet the bubble of excitement and anticipation still raging inside of me. I took a deep breath and tried to get a grip. I looked up to find Bell watching me, her gaze almost intrusive.

“Well, I don’t know about you ladies,” Bell said. “But I am starving. Why don’t we see if we can figure out where the dining hall is?”

“Oh, I know where it is,” Frankie said, her words a bit slower. “I’ve got a campus map right here.” She actually pulled an index card sized object from her back pocket and unfolded it to reveal a full-size campus map. I was definitely going to have to keep hanging out with her.


***


Three hours later, we were well-fed and at an off-campus party. We were invited by the older brother of one of Bell’s high school friends and we knew no one there. That didn’t matter. Frankie, it turned out, loosened up quite a bit after she’d had approximately two swallows of beer and the three of us had spent the better part of the past hour dancing to some truly old school rap. My phone vibrated in my pocket and I shimmied off the dance floor to answer it. I’d already let Byron know I wouldn’t be stopping by his frat, I’d rather hang out with my roommates and possibly meet some guys who wouldn’t be warned to stay away from me. Still, I knew he’d worry if I didn’t answer his latest text.

Byron: Text me back and let me know you’re still alive.

Me: I’m either still alive or I’m lying dead in a gutter somewhere and the psycho who killed me has my phone and is pretending to be me.

I’d meant to be funny, but when my phone rang a moment later, it was clear I’d miscalculated.

“Seriously, Byron, it was just a joke,” I said as soon as I answered.

“You’re supposed to be with Byron,” Uncle Leon said, sounding pissed. “Where are you? Are you at a party without your brother?”

Byron was technically my cousin and I thought of him as such, but my uncle always called his sons my brothers, and he would have liked me to call him dad. I never did, because he wasn’t my dad. I couldn’t remember my own father, who’d died when I was eight, and calling Leon Dad just felt like pretending my real dad had never existed.

I put a hand over my phone and pushed through the crowd and out of the apartment. Once I was in the quiet hall, I took a deep breath and put the phone back to my ear. Uncle Leon had escalated to yelling about coming down there and dragging me back home. “It’s fine,” I said. “I’m just at a noisy restaurant and Byron is meeting me here any minute.” I lied to my uncle, but you would lie to your uncle, too, if he was uber-paranoid and almost refused to let you attend college unless you went to the same school as your cousin and promised to never leave your dorm room except for classes.

“Well, that’s alright then,” he said. It cracked my heart just a bit that he didn’t sound the least bit suspicious. “How do you like your dorm room? What’s your roommate like?”

Two people stumbled out the apartment door, laughing and talking so loud I figured at least one of them must be hard of hearing. “Oh, there’s Byron. I gotta go Uncle Leon, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Okay, sweetheart. I love you.”

My eyes burned suddenly and I swallowed hard against the lump in my throat. “I love you, too.”

I hurried back into the party, but everything inside had changed. Bell sat on a couch, chatting with a blonde, lanky guy and laughing as though he was the funniest person she’d ever met. Frankie was still dancing, but she had a guy wrapped around her, his hands on her butt, his face in her neck. She didn’t look happy, she looked panicked. I had no way of knowing what had happened, but I knew Frankie didn’t want to be dancing with that guy, and I wasn’t going to allow her to be miserable when I’d convinced her to be there.

I walked over and tapped the guy on the shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?” I asked, letting my voice go all sugary and sweet.

They guy groping my new roommate looked at me and laughed. “I think she’d rather be with me. Wouldn’t you, baby?” Mr. Gropey Hands asked the last to Frankie, and the poor dear, bless her heart, just didn’t want to be rude. She shrugged and gave him a sweet smile, but when she looked at me, I could see she was dying for my help.

“Seriously?” I asked, letting anger tinge my words. “You said you loved me, yet here you are feeling up some douche bag?”

“Hey!” the guy said, letting go of Frankie and turning to face me. He looked angry and he was most definitely drunk, and I wondered if I’d miscalculated. Growing up with four older cousins, I’d learned a few things about dealing with men, but my cousins would never hurt me. I wasn’t so sure the same was true for that guy.

I barreled past him and got in Frankie’s face. She paled and took a step back, so I winked at her and gave her a quick smile, before I wrapped myself around her. “The only person you should be dancing with is me,” I said, loud enough for the angry guy I’d just cock blocked to hear. “Just play along,” I whispered in Frankie’s ear. She giggled, wrapped her arms around my neck, and started swaying with me to the music.

Mr. Gropey Hands appeared in my line of sight. “Any chance you go both ways?” he asked. “Maybe you girls would both like to come back to my place?”

“Well, I certainly would, sugar,” I said, putting on a southern drawl to rival Bell’s. “But I only like vaginas.”

“Maybe I could change your mind,” he said, with what I suspect he intended to be a leer, but looked more like he was having a stroke.

“Yeah,” I said. “No. You couldn’t.”

A vein started throbbing in his forehead. “Look, I don’t know what the fuck your problem is, but I—”

“Why don’t you get me and my girlfriend a drink and we’ll talk about it,” I said, trying to bring him down from what appeared to be a steroidal rage.

As soon as he left, I broke away from Frankie and dragged her off the dance floor. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand,” I said.

I hurried us over to the couch, where Bell was still talking to the hot guy. I grabbed her shoulder and started pulling her up from the couch. I wasn’t afraid to fight a guy, but…okay, I wasn’t afraid to fight my cousins, but Mr. Gropey Hands was much bigger than me and running away seemed the better option.

Bell pulled against me and gave me an annoyed look. “What?” she asked, her southern drawl making her sound like a delicate flower, even when she was obviously annoyed.

“I just pissed off a really, really big guy who was groping Frankie,” I said. “We should go.”

“Just tell him to back off,” Bell said.

“Um.” I stifled the urge to be sarcastic. “I sort of did, but he’s a bit scary.”

“Who is he?” Bell’s beau asked. “I can talk to him for you.”

I pointed to Mr. Gropey hands, who was heading toward the dance floor, balancing two red cups and two jello shots. I really hated playing the damsel in distress at my first college party, and I didn’t want Bell’s new friend to get hurt. “It’s okay,” I said. “We’ll just leave.”

“No way,” the guy said, although he did pale a bit when I pointed out Mr. Gropey Hands. I mean he wasn’t the hulk, he was more Chris Hemsworth than Lou Ferrigno, but he was big enough to be a problem for Bell’s somewhat lanky friend. “No one leaves one of my parties because some dude is being a dick.” He gestured to someone across the room and started heading to cut off Frankie’s nemesis, who had just spotted us.

Bell, Frankie, and I sat on the couch and watched as Bell’s new friend met up with a well-muscled guy, who was about the size of Chris Evans on the famous-guys-who-play-superheroes scale I was building in my head, and started talking to Mr. Gropey Hands. Mr. Gropey Hands threw the drinks he was carrying into the faces of Bell’s friend and his back-up, and then punched Bell’s friend in the face and kicked the other guy in the balls while they were blinded by alcohol. That shit just pissed me off. Fighting dirty was for pansies and family members.

Mr. Gropey Hands grabbed Bell’s friend by his hair and yanked him back to hit him again, and I saw red. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was off the couch and kicking Mr. Gropey Hands hard in the shin. He dropped Bell’s friend and, while he was howling like a wimp about his shin, I boxed his ears. I wasn’t MMA trained or anything, but I knew how to cause pain and disorientation. By that time, Bell’s friend and his back-up had recovered and they moved in on Mr. Gropey Hands. The back-up guy pulled back to punch Mr. Gropey Hands and, accidently, elbowed me in the nose. I heard a pop and saw stars, right before my entire face exploded in pain.

I did my best to move out of firing range and not fall over in agony. Bell grabbed my elbow and led me to the couch, and Frankie appeared a moment later with towels and ice. “I can’t believe you did that,” Frankie said, her words at a normal pace. She wrapped her baggy of ice cubes in a towel and pushed it gently against my nose. “How does it feel?”

“It really hurts,” I said. “I think it might be broken.”

“Maybe,” Frankie said. “I broke my nose cheerleading last year, and I bled everywhere.” She pulled the ice off and looked at me. “We won’t know for sure until the swelling goes down, but it doesn’t look broken to me.”

“Oh, shit,” somebody said. “What happened to your friend?”

“Your friend hit her with his elbow,” Bell told someone. I couldn’t see much, because Frankie had put the ice back on my nose.

“Hey, Worthy,” Bell’s friend said. “Get your ass over here and apologize to the girl.”

I tried to push the ice off my nose, but Frankie wasn’t letting me. “You need to keep it on, for ten more minutes,” she said.

“What happened?” asked a deep male voice I assumed belonged to Worthy.

“Dude, you elbowed her in the nose,” Bell’s friend said. “You are such a fucking bruiser.”

“Is she okay?” Worthy asked.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” Frankie said. “But we won’t know for sure until the swelling goes down.” Frankie seemed to be in her element with the first aid job, and she was actually speaking to a stranger at a normal pace.

“Tell her I’m sorry, and—”

“My ears weren’t injured,” I said. “I’m fine. I know you didn’t hit me on purpose.”

“Well, I’m sorry, anyway…” he said.

“Remy,” Bell said. “Her name is Remy.”

“Remy, I’m sorry. Can I give you a ride home? Or to a hospital? Whatever you want.”

“Have you been drinking?” Bell asked.

“No, I hadn’t started, yet. I don’t want Remy trying to walk back to the dorms in her condition.”

Moments later, I was in a backseat, with Frankie still holding the ice on my nose. “Surely the ten minutes is up, Frankie,” I said. I heard the car start to turn over and stutter a couple of times before the motor hummed to life.

“You’ve got thirty more seconds,” Frankie said, entirely serious.

By the time she’d agreed to remove the ice, we were already in motion and all I could see from my seat directly behind the driver was the back of Worthy’s head.

Worthy pulled up to the dorms less than five minutes later, my nose had stopped bleeding and Frankie was pretty sure I didn’t need to sit in an emergency room for the next four hours. I was in no mood to argue with her opinion, but I was definitely hitting her up for a handful of aspirin when we got back to our room.

Worthy got out of the car and hurried to open my door and help me out. I looked up and saw an angel, the streetlight directly behind his head made a halo around his face. I couldn’t make out many of his features, but the lights of the passing cars provided enough light for me to see that he had a firm jaw and eyes that looked amber and otherworldly in the weird light. He touched my elbow and guided me to the steps leading up and into the building. “Again, I’m sorry,” he said. “Can I have your phone? I’ll give you my number in case your nose is broken and you have any medical expenses.”

I pulled my phone from my pocket and gave it to him. He typed in his number and handed it back.

“Thanks Worthy,” Bell said. “We can take it from here.”

“Okay,” he said, not moving and not letting go of me. “Let me know if she needs anything.”

“Sure,” Bell said. Worthy let me go and stepped back, and she and Frankie helped me up the stairs.

“I can walk, you know,” I said, even though I felt dizzy and my eyes must have been getting puffy, because everything was a bit blurry.

“Really?” Bell said. “You accepted Worthy’s help without argument, why can’t you accept ours?”

“What the hell happened?” Byron roared. I could just make out his hazy shape in front of our suite door. I remembered the last text I’d sent him and figured he was freaking out. College was really going to be fun, I could already tell.




CHAPTER TWO



My first party in college, my first party ever, got me elbowed in the face, and I started classes and a job at the campus cafeteria with two black eyes and a swollen nose. At least, I wasn’t invisible. Everyone noticed me and everyone wanted to know what my story was. Well, almost everyone, a few people shied away from me like I must be scary, which was awesome. I’ve never been scary before. I’ve never been anything before, except the cousin and the niece.

I saw Worthy in my third, and final, class of my second day of college, Intro to Biology. The class was held in a lecture hall and was already about half-filled with students. The doors to the lecture hall opened at the back and the top of the room and stairs led down past theater-style seating to the main floor. I saw him, seated near the front, and looking back at me as I walked down the stairs. He didn’t seem to register me as someone he knew, and I suspected he was looking for someone else. He wasn’t what anyone would call gorgeous, but like the way he looked. He had a sharp jaw and perfect, shiny brown curls that flopped over into his eyes. It was his eyes that drew me, a rich brown that I was certain took on a weird amber hue in the right light.

I saw him and I wanted him. It was that simple. I wanted to hear the deep rumble of his voice again, and I wanted to see what he looked like when he smiled. And when I wanted something, I wasn’t so good about being patient and waiting. I was the girl who ate dessert first and snuck around trying to catch a peek at Christmas presents before the big day. I marched down the steps and smiled at Worthy like I was the one he’d been waiting for. He, however, somehow managed to resist my smile. Before I could say hello, he frowned and shook his head. Silently warning me not to bother.

I stopped for just a moment, but then I reminded myself that rejection was part of life and I wasn’t going to hide from any part of life. I continued down the stairs and climbed over Worthy’s legs to plop down right next to him.

“That seat’s taken,” he said, his eyes still trained on the stairs.

“By your girlfriend?”

He looked at me then, startled by my ordinary question. “No. For a friend. You need to sit somewhere else.”

Wow. So my body wanted an asshole. It would have been unlikely that the first guy I found myself attracted to would be a gem, but the disappointment still stung. “No problem,” I said. “I just wanted to thank you again for getting me home safe last night.” I stood and he grabbed my hand, his touch warm.

He looked up at me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not usually so rude, it’s just that…you’re Byron’s little sister, right? He came home swearing about his little sister getting beaten up last night and the name he used was Remington.”

“Cousin,” I said, my heart sinking. Even away at college, I wasn’t truly free.

“What?”

“He’s my cousin, he just calls me his sister. So, I guess he told you to stay away from me?” I was going to kick Byron in the gonads when I saw him and then I was going to kick Worthy for being cowed by my cousin. “And you’re just pusillanimous enough to listen to him.” I jerked my hand away from his.

“I’m what?”

I rolled my eyes. “A wimp, a wuss, a chicken shit, a spineless invertebrate. Take your pick. You’re shooing me away like a gnat because my cousin told you to stay away from me and you’re too pusillanimous to ignore him.”

His face reddened. “What? No. He’s my friend and I respect—”

“I see your lips moving,” I said. “But all I’m hearing is, ‘I’m a chicken shit.’”

“That’s not fair.” His brow creased and his mouth turned down in anger. No one liked to be called a wimp, but wimps especially hated to be called out.

I stepped over his legs and into the aisle, scanning the rows for the toughest, baddest dude in that lecture hall. Someone who wouldn’t be afraid to stand up to my cousin, who would think I was worth it. Ah, there he was, two rows behind Worthy, dark hair, a medium build, and normal clothes, but ice-cold eyes and a bar through his cheek. There was a guy who wasn’t afraid of pain.

I climbed the steps to him, crawled over several sets of legs and sat down next to him. “Hi, I’m Remy.”

The guy gave me a lazy once-over, a smile tickling his mouth. “I’m the guy you’re using to piss Worthy off,” he said, pointing down to Worthy, who was glaring at both of us. “But you can just call me Harrison.”

I smiled and felt lighter than I had all day. “I think I’m going to like you, Harrison.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re insane,” he said with a wicked grin. “What the hell happened to your face, anyway?”

“Well, you see, Harrison, I was goat herding in the Swiss Alps and one of the goats got real pissed off when I insisted on playing Steely Dan during its grazing time—”

“Welcome to Intro to Biology,” the professor interrupted. I stopped talking and gave the professor my full attention. “Without biology, folks, none of you would be here, so I expect you to take this class seriously.” I pulled out my laptop and started pounding out notes. I loved college.


***


“So what’s your story?” I asked, as Harrison and I walked out of class together.

“Clearly not as interesting as yours,” he said with a smirk. “I’m just your average guy from small town nowhere.”

“Right,” I said. “That’s why I picked you to sit with, because you looked totally boring. What about that bar in your cheek? That has to have a fun story to go with it.”

“Well, you see, Remy,” Harrison said. “I was skydiving in Mozambique, when—”

“Hey, Remy,” Worthy said, catching up to us. “Can we talk for a minute?”

I looked around, feigning nervousness. “I don’t know. What if Byron sees us?”

Worthy shook his head and glared at me. “It’s called respect. Byron’s a friend and he asked me to keep my distance, so I’m staying away. That doesn’t make me a chicken shit, it makes me a good friend.”

He started to walk away and I stared after him confused. “Why do you care?”

He stopped and turned to look back at me. “What?”

“You’re never going to talk to me or see me again,” I said. “So why do you care what I think of you? Other people’s opinions are about as useful as a popsicle in a snowstorm and all of that.”

He stared hard at me, a wrinkle twisting his brow. He looked confused and a bit lost and I wanted to grab him and find some way to help him. Unfortunately for Worthy, I had some pride. I wouldn’t chase him like a kicked puppy. “I don’t care,” he said.

“Pretty sure you do.”

He shook his head, his frown fierce, and stormed off, almost knocking over a girl in a mini skirt and thigh-high boots in the process. She cursed at him, but she checked him out as he walked away.

“What was that all about?” Harrison asked.

“He’s friends with my over-protective cousin and is staying away from me, as he just explained.”

Harrison started walking and I fell into step next to him. “Still doesn’t make sense,” he said.

I sighed. I was tired of thinking about Worthy. “What confuses me is a mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, is that really in fashion anywhere but a go-go bar or a strip club?”

“I thought she looked hot as hell,” Harrison said.

“You would.”

He laughed and threw an arm around my shoulders. “Not as hot as you, though.”

“Thanks. Do you want to be my boyfriend?” I’d never had a boyfriend before and Harrison seemed like he’d be easy to get along with and fun. I didn’t feel the attraction to Harrison that I felt to Worthy, but I figured that was a good thing. The way Worthy made me feel, the way I was so drawn to him when I didn’t even know him, that was bad news. Worthy was the big leagues and I had to work up to him.

Harrison gave me a little squeeze. “You don’t want me, Remy. You want that idiot who just stormed away.”

I gasped. “How do you know that?”

“I have eyes, baby. Besides, I don’t do the dating thing. I do the let’s have a good time tonight and pretend we don’t know each other tomorrow thing. And you’re too much of a good girl for that.” His gaze was snagged by a girl jogging by in shorts and a sports bra. She noticed him and smiled when he winked at her.

I wondered if I could be the love ‘em and leave ‘em type. The truth was I hadn’t been out in the world long enough to know what type I was. I considered going home with Harrison for some uncomplicated fun and a chance to experience sex, but just the thought of kissing him when I wanted Worthy made me feel wrong and a bit dirty. I slumped. “Yeah, I am a good girl. And I’m a virgin.” I slapped a hand over my mouth. “Oh, my god, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I seem to have come down with some sort of virus of the rambling sort.”

Harrison laughed. “It’s okay. I like your honesty. Most people are pretending to be someone they aren’t.”

“I like you, too, Harrison. I like you so much, I’m going to bring you back to my suite and introduce you to all the hot girls who live there.”


***


I guess I had a romantic vision of studying in my dorm room and reality is a jerkweed that will kick you when you’re down. It was Saturday and I didn’t have to work, so I’d planned to spend the whole day studying, but Frankie wanted to chat. I’d also slept in probably later than I should have, met Byron for lunch, and unpacked the rest of my clothes. So, it was now after seven and I was finally getting down to studying and Frankie, who’d managed her time much better and was done studying, wanted to chat.

“I mean, I barely talked to him at all and he just made this arbitrary judgment about me,” Frankie said, interrupting my reading about cellular structure for the third time. “You don’t think I’m too nice, do you?”

I really regretted ever bringing Harrison around to meet my suitemates. “You already told me you don’t like him, so why do you care what he thinks?”

Frankie dropped her head into her pillow and mumbled something.

I considered ignoring her, since I couldn’t actually hear what she was saying, but I kind of felt bad for the girl. She’d had a rough few first days. Some guy had shoved her into a wall and she had a gnarly bruise on her side. She claims he didn’t even realize he’d done it, said she’s invisible. “Frankie, I can’t hear you through the pillow.”

She looked up at me, her face flaming red. “I think he’s really cute.”

I spun around in my chair and faced her. “You said you don’t like him.”

“I don’t like him. He’s horrible. He’s so flirty and I’m pretty sure everything he said was a lie.”

I bit back a laugh. “He’s not a bad guy, Frankie. It’s okay if you like him.”

“I don’t like him,” she said, sounding somewhere in the ballpark of snippy, though I’d never heard her be anything but sweet as pumpkin pie before. “I’m just, you know, attracted to him, or whatever.”

“And you care what he thinks of you,” I said.

She gave a little growl and dropped her face back into the pillow. “What is wrong with me?”

“Nothing is wrong with you. You can’t control hormones, sweetie. We’ve established that you don’t like him, so you probably only care about what he thinks because you feel the need for him to be attracted to you in return.”

She pulled her face out of the pillow and looked at me. “You really think so?”

I nodded. “Yes. I do.”

She sniffled. “Okay. Sorry to interrupt your reading.”

I spun around and returned to cellular structure. I loved learning and, even if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to fail college and risk getting sent back to live with my uncle.

“Hey, ladies,” Bell said, sticking her head in the door. “I heard there’s an ice cream party going on downstairs if you’re interested. It’s freee.” She actually sang the last part.

I should have refused and kept studying, but really, who turns down free ice cream?

“I’m in,” I said. “Does this mean we’re going to meet our other suitemates tonight?”

Bell shrugged. “I haven’t seen them. My roommate’s always with her boyfriend, and the other two are MIA.”

“Have you met any of them?” I asked Frankie. I was nosy, I admit it.

Frankie nodded. “I have a class with Selene. I tried to talk to her, but the professor walked in and Selene shushed me.”

She shushed you?” I asked.

“She did it politely,” Frankie said, dropping her eyes to the floor.

“Well, in that case…What about after class?”

“She ran off, saying she had to get to work,” Frankie said. “I guess she’s not very social.”

Bell put an arm around Frankie’s shoulders. “Don’t take it personally, sugar. She works crazy long hours, and I think she’s really stressed about school.”

Frankie nodded, and wrapped an arm around Bell’s waist. “More ice cream for us.”

I followed them out and down the hall to the courtyard. There were crowds of people milling around and about five tables of ice cream and toppings. I spotted Harrison standing by a tree, flirting with some girl in denim shorts and a halter top. I didn’t want to interrupt his game, so I headed for the ice cream, but he shouted my name and waved me over.

“Aren’t you a sophomore?” I asked when I got to him. “Pretty sure this party is for freshmen only.”

He looked around with an amused smile, and denim shorts girl glared at me like I was the one who’d interrupted her flirtation. “Really? I don’t see any signs forbidding upperclassmen.”

I couldn’t argue with that. “Have you gotten any ice cream, yet?”

“Yeah, let’s get some ice cream,” denim shorts girl said. Harrison ignored us both and stared at something over my shoulder. I turned to see a crowd of students and had no idea who he was eying up.

“Hello, Harrison?” I said. “Want to get some ice cream?”

“I’m not here for ice cream,” he said. Denim shorts girl giggled like he’d made a joke. “I came to see if you and your friends wanted to go to a party with me tonight.”

“What kind of party?” I asked.

“I love parties,” denim shorts girl said in a breathy voice. “And I’m a lot more fun than her.” She looked me up and down like I had something grotesque stuck to my clothing. I checked, but I was gross stuff free.

Harrison looked at her like he’d forgotten she was standing right next to him. “I’m sure you do and I’m sure you are, but this is a private party.”

“Those are my favorite kind.” Denim shorts girl ran a finger up Harrison’s arm. He shuddered and shook her off.

“I can only bring one person, sorry,” Harrison said. When denim shorts girl kept looking at him hopefully, he sighed. “You seem really nice and you’re gorgeous, but I can’t take you to this party.”

Denim shorts girl should have been mad at Harrison, since he was the one who’d dissed her, but she turned her angry face to me. “When you get bored with the hippy,” she said to Harrison. “Come find me. I’m in room 312.”

She stuck her chin in the air and stalked off. I wasn’t sure whether I should laugh or be annoyed. If I thought being called a hippy was an insult, I might have gotten irritated, but I’d been called much worse.

Harrison watched her go and shook his head. I wasn’t sure if his expression was relief or regret, but he turned back to me without a word about her. “It’s not a party, exactly. It’s more like a paintball tournament in the dark. A bunch of my friends and I go about once a month, and I thought you girls might like to join us.”

My heart pounded with anticipation, and I had to swallow hard not to start jumping up and down in excitement. Growing up in the mountains of West Virginia in a family of men who loved to hunt, I hadn’t had much choice about learning to handle a gun. I was a pretty good shot and I’d been dying to try paintball. “Yes, please,” I said, trying to sound demure. I didn’t want him to know I was excited or that I knew how to shoot. No reason to let him know ahead of time that he was going to lose. “I would love to give paintball a try. Do those little balls of paint hurt when they hit?”

Harrison smiled wide enough to crack his face. “Hell, yeah, they do. Do you think Frankie and that other girl want to go?”

Oh, no. “Look, Harrison,” I said. “I like you. I really do, but stay the hell away from Frankie.”

He didn’t even bother to try to look annoyed. His smile turned predatory with wolfish enjoyment. “You scared I’m going to debauch her?”

“She’s a nice girl, Harrison, and she’s my friend. She’s not some girl you just sleep with and toss aside.”

Finally, he looked annoyed. “What makes you think that’s all I want?”

I just stared at him. I might not know much about living in the real world or modern social mores, but Harrison had told me himself that he didn’t date and I was pretty positive Frankie wasn’t a casual hook-up kind of girl. “Frankie’s the kind of girl you date,” I said. “She’s not the ‘good time tonight and pretend I don’t know you tomorrow’ kind of girl.” I bent my fingers to make air quotes where needed.

Harrison smirked. “Maybe she doesn’t know what kind of girl she is,” he said. “Maybe she needs someone to help her find her way.”

“No, no, no,” I said, hoping he was joking. “I like you and I like Frankie, and I don’t want to have to choose sides when it goes bad.”

“I never leave a woman unhappy,” he said.

“How would you know?” I asked. “If you don’t stick around to find out?”

He grinned. “I’ve never had any complaints.” He must have seen the genuine concern on my face, because he shook his head and got serious. “Don’t worry, Remy. I have no intention of tarnishing that angel’s halo.”

“Remy, you’ve got to get some ice cream,” Bell said. I turned to see her and Frankie strolling toward us, both with big bowls.

“I’ve got something even better,” I said, giving both her and Frankie encouraging smiles. Frankie’s gaze seemed to be stuck on Harrison, so I poked her shoulder. She re-focused on me, her cheeks pinking a bit. “Harrison’s invited us to play paint ball in the dark, tonight!” I said. I couldn’t help it, I jumped up and down a couple of times.

“Really?” Bell said. “That sounds like one of my worst nightmares. I’m going to stay here and enjoy a second, and maybe a third, bowl of ice cream.”

I scowled at her, but she just smiled sweetly. “Frankie, you in?”

Frankie nodded. “Sure, I’ve never played before, but it sounds like fun.”

Bell stepped toe to toe with Harrison. “How do I know you aren’t going to drive my friends down some country road, murder them, and cut their bodies up into little pieces?”

Harrison looked at me, but I just shrugged. Bell made a good point. “Um, you have a scarily vivid imagination,” Harrison said. “But I promise I have only the best of intentions. Remy’s brother knows me, call him.”

“He’s my cousin,” I said. “And how do you know him?”

Harrison shrugged. “I’ve seen him around. He’s played paintball with us a couple of times.”

I really didn’t want to call Byron and tell him what we were doing, but Bell was glaring at me and tapping her foot like a worried mother, so I pulled my phone out of my back pocket and dialed. My cousin answered freaky fast, like he’d been waiting for me to call, or he was watching me and had seen me take out my phone.

“Hey, sis, what’s up?” he asked, sounding way too chipper.

“Do you know a guy named Harrison. Harrison…” I looked at Harrison.

He rolled his eyes. “Hunt.”

“Harrison Hunt. Seriously? That sounds like a total porn name.”

Harrison gave me the finger and Byron laughed in my ear. “I said the same thing when he told me his name. Yeah, I know him.” He sighed. “Please tell me you aren’t going out with him, because I have to tell you, sis, Harrison is the player’s player and I really—”

“No, I’m definitely not even remotely interested in Harrison in any romantic way.” As much fun as it would have been to tease my cousin, I just wanted Bell to let us go play paintball. “He wants to take me and Frankie to play paint ball in the woods.”

“Who’s Frankie? Please tell me you aren’t already seeing someone.”

Again, I was beyond tempted to tease him, but I managed to restrain myself. “No, she’s my roommate. About the paint ball…?”

“Yeah, it’s all good. I’ve played before. Just let me talk to Harrison right quick.”

For all his book-learnin’ Byron still talked like a country boy when it suited him. I handed the phone over to Harrison and he listened, said yes three times, hung up and handed back my phone. “We’re all good.” He looked at Bell. “Satisfied, mother?”

Bell gave him a sweet smile. “As I’ll ever be, I suppose. Have fun, children.”

We hugged Bell goodbye and got in Harrison’s car. I sat in the back, so I could share Frankie’s ice cream. “No, really,” Harrison said. “I’ll just chauffer you ladies to paintball. And don’t bother offering me any ice cream. I’m just the driver.”

“Oh, I’m sorr—” Frankie started, but I elbowed her in the side. She looked at me with wide eyes, and I gave her an apologetic smile. It was easy to forget how sensitive she could be.

“Are you going to whine this much during paint ball, Harrison? Cause if you are, I’m signing on with the other team.”

“I’d love it if you joined the other team, Remy, because then I could kick your ass,” Harrison said. “Harrison Hunt is my father’s and my grandfather’s name, and it in no way sounds porny.”

“Harrison Hunt, the third,” I said in a sultry voice, waggling my eyebrows at him in the rearview mirror.

He shook his head and chose to ignore me.

Luckily, Harrison stopped to pick up two more guys so I didn’t have to keep trash-talking him all the way to the paintball field. The other two guys were tall and thin, but they looked tough. They chatted with Harrison about some class the three of them had together, and Frankie and I enjoyed her ice cream in peace.

About twenty minutes later, the sun had set and Harrison turned down a bumpy dirt road and started driving into the forest. “Um,” I said. “Where exactly are we going?” I was comfortable in the woods, but I’d expected us to end up in a more civilized locale.

“This is Herc’s property,” Harrison said. “He and I went to high school together, and he lets us use his woods for our paintball tournaments.”

“Will he be playing?”

Harrison’s brow twisted. “He usually doesn’t. Worthy said he’d stop over early and try to talk him into it, but I haven’t heard if he’s been successful or not.

My heart skipped a little. “Worthy?” I asked. “Worthy’s involved in these paintball tournaments?”

Harrison choked back a laugh. “Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that?”

“And he’s going to be here tonight?”

Harrison shrugged. “Probably. But he’ll be on the other team.”

Harrison parked the car in the middle of nothing, as far as I could tell, and everyone piled out. It was pitch dark, and I couldn’t see anything. Frankie stumbled out of the car with me, and clung to my arm. “Is it too late to back out?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” I said, trying to sound calm, but wondering what the hell I’d gotten us into.

Harrison’s laugh erupted next to me, and I almost jumped out of my skin as he grabbed my elbow and led me away from the car. I grabbed Frankie’s hand and pulled her with us. After a few moments, my eyes adjusted enough that I could make out trees and bushes in the light of the full moon. We followed Harrison to a barn, and got outfitted with coveralls, full-face goggles, body armor, gloves, and yellow armbands. Harrison explained that the enemy would be wearing red armbands. One of Harrison’s friends handed us each high-tech paintball guns. “Where is everyone else?” I asked, since it was just the five of us in the barn.

“They’re already in the woods,” Harrison said. “We’re a bit late, so they’ve probably got a gnarly ambush set up for us.”

Despite my mixed feelings about running into Worthy, I couldn’t help the excitement I felt at finding out what kind of ambush they’d set up and how I’d elude it. “Stick with me,” I said to Frankie. She looked badass in her paintball goggles, and her eyes crinkled like she was grinning under her face mask. She seemed to have a secret wild side.


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