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Also by L.G. CASTILLO
Strong & Wilde
Secrets & Surrender
Lash (Broken Angel #1)
After the Fall (Broken Angel #2)
Before the Fall (Broken Angel #3)
Jeremy (Broken Angel #4)
Golden Angel (Broken Angel #5)
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Copyright © 2016 by L.G Castillo
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without express written permission of the publisher. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Image and Cover Design: www.maeidesign.com
Editor: Kristie Stramaski with EKS Edits
“Now that’s what I call a house, Nicole. I loveit!”
I set my guitar case on the ground and stood beside my best friend, Greg Miller, gawking at what was supposed to be Aunt Bernadette’s house. The cross-country drive from New York to Texas must’ve fried his brain cells, or maybe it was the blinding neon colored walls.
The house was a rainbow of colors. One side was a bright green with a series of peace symbols painted around each of the windows. What looked like Christmas lights lined the roof and wrapped around every inch of the purple front porch. A mass of wild flowers covered the yard, and to the far right there was a vegetable garden.
“This can’t be it.” I glanced around, searching for a street address.
It was hard to imagine that the person who lived here could be related to my mother. I could hear her now, saying something like, “It’s not befitting of an Ashford to live in a place likethis.”
“Oh, look at that. Window air conditioners,” Greg said. “Do you think your pampered classical ass can handle not having centralair?”
“Of course I can.” I swallowed, staring at the two tiny metal boxes sticking out of the windows. I’d only been out of my nice air-conditioned car for two minutes and already my clothes were drenched in sweat. I’d heard it was hot in Texas, but I wasn’t expecting it to be thishot!
“And according to my parents, I don’t have an ounce of classical talent in my body,” Isaid.
The Ashford name was famous in the classical music circles. My parents were concert pianists who traveled the world. When people found out who my parents were, they often looked at me with envy and asked me questions about what it felt like to be their daughter. I’d give them the polite answers like, “It’s great,” or “They’re amazing parents.” They never knew that I roamed the rooms of our empty three-story home, wishing for someone to talk to. They didn’t know that when I crossed the stage at my high school graduation and looked out into the audience, the only familiar face was Greg’s, because my parents had left for Australia for a performance. Only Greg knew that I sat sobbing in my shiny new BMW Z3 fiddling with a first class round trip ticket to London . . . graduation gifts from my parents.
Greg knew because he was the only one there.
That was two years ago, and the thought of it still hurt. If only I hadn’t been such a big disappointment to them. I was average. No talent, well, unless you considered learning to play guitar on my own as a talent. If Aunt Bernadette hadn’t given me the guitar for my graduation present, I probably would’ve thought I had no musical skill whatsoever. Not that my parents would’ve approved. If it wasn’t classical, it wasn’t real music.
“As for my so-called pampered ass, I only have this car and,” I dug into my pocket, “thirty dollars and fifty-two cents to myname.”
I had to admit I was a little scared about my decision to attend college in Texas. After backpacking through Europe for two years, fully supported by my parents because they thought it was a great way for me to be exposed to “culture,” I’d made the decision to go my own way. They had freaked when I’d told them I was going to Texas State instead of Columbia University. It was the most reaction I’d gotten out of them in years. They even cancelled their Zurich performance and flown back to New York to try to stop me. But my mind was made up. I didn’t budge, even when they said they wouldn’t give me a dime of support. I was so proud of myself. I’d stood my ground, despite not having a clue how I was going to pay for college.
I eyed my life’s savings in myhand.
Yeah, I was screwed.
I’d picked Texas State because it was as far away from New York as I could get and Aunt Bernadette lived near campus. I hadn’t seen her in years, and the one picture of her that my mother allowed in the house was a family Christmas photo taken sometime in the early ’80s. Mom hated anything that reminded her of living in Texas. She’d left the moment she’d met my father and never looked back. Thankfully, Aunt Bernadette took pity and welcomed me to stay with her as long as I liked.
“I told you to let me help you out with the cash flow problem,” Gregsaid.
“No way. I’m doing this on myown.”
“Okay, Ms. Stubborn. Then let’s start unloading and settle in so we can find you a job. Though I’m not sure if the house is big enough for all our stuff.”
“Our stuff?” I scoffed, marched over to the back of the yellow moving van, and unlatched the rear door. It rolled up, revealing a wall of moving boxes with his name on each one ofthem.
“Don’t you mean yourstuff?”
Innocent eyes blinked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“All right. All right. Excuse me for not wanting to dress like I just rolled out ofbed.”
“Just because I don’t wear bowtie’s doesn’t mean I’m fashion backwards.”
“Ouch. Hitting below the belt, Ashford?” A subtle color of pink flooded his face. “I can’t believe you brought that up. We made vows, blood oaths, to never speak of my one and only fashion faux pas. It scarred me for life. Literally. See?”
He waggled his finger, the same finger I’d pricked with my father’s letter opener when we were in grade school.
Smiling, I remembered the first time I’d met him. I’d been in the third grade, and he’d been in first. I’d been on my way to my private violin lesson (or what I liked to call my half-hour of driving my music teacher batty by simulating the sound of cats in heat) when I saw a couple of kids picking on the cutest little boy. With his mass of light brown hair, big blue eyes, and a red bowtie, who wouldn’t think he was adorable—apparently not the two boys who were twice his size. That was probably the only time I was grateful my parents had made me take violin lessons. The case had come in handy when I’d used it to whack the bullies over the head. Needless to say, they’d never bothered Greg again. We’d been friends ever since.
Most people thought we were brother and sister. We both had the same hair color and slender build. Though I’d kill for his baby blues instead of my blue greeneyes.
“Stop exaggerating. It was just a little poke,” Isaid.
“Okay, so I don’t have a scar, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that we look like a before and after fashion photo shoot.”
“Knock it off, meanie.” I laughed, shoving him playfully.
“Moi, mean? I seem to recall a certain someone tossing my Cher CDs out the window somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.”
“Fourteen hours of Cher was enough. My ears were bleeding.”
He crossed his arms and pouted.
“Okay, I’ll make it up to you. I’ll take you to her concert.”
“Yeah, right. A concert in this tiny town? I thinknot.”
“It’s not that small. There’s a shopping mall, and I think I saw a danceclub.”
“I saw tumbleweed, Nicole. Tumbleweed.”
Grinning, he winked. He always teased me when I was scared or nervous. It was his way of distracting me, and he always managed to make me laugh.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you.” I’d never expected him to come with me to Texas. I was ready for a tearful good-bye and a huge cellphone bill, because it was impossible to let a day pass without talking to him. Then a couple of days before my scheduled moving date, he showed up at my front door with a moving van sitting in the driveway saying he was coming withme.
Two big things happened this summer. I’d finally let go of the fact that I would never please my parents, and Greg came out to his. Unlike my parents, who had dangled a lot of money for me to stay in New York to attend Columbia University, Greg’s parents gave him money to move as far away from them as possible. When he told them he wanted to go to Texas State with me, they’d even pulled some strings to get him accepted after the application deadline had passed.
“You’d probably be lost in the middle of Idaho by now. I love you but, girlfriend, you need to learn how to read a map.” He took out one of the boxes from the truck.
“I took one wrong turn.” I reached over to grab abox.
“Yeah, yeah. It was morelike—”
“Nicole? Is that you? Oh my, it is you. You look so grownup.”
My jaw dropped at the woman heading toward us. Frizzy red hair hung down to her back. It was so wild, the multicolored head band seemed to strain from its effort to keep her hair from puffing out. Her tie-dye tank top and long flowing skirt matched the house with its swirls of purples, greens, and blues. Across her obviously braless chest, sat a necklace shaped in a peacesign.
“Hey, Aunt Bernadette,” I squeaked when she gave me a bearhug.
“Oh, I gave that name up years ago. I go by Rainbow Skye now. Your mother didn’t tell you? Never mind, don’t answer that. Call me Rainbow. Look at you.” She stood back, taking me in. “You’ve grown up so fast, and you’re so beautiful. And this must beGreg.”
Greg’s eyes widened when Rainbow threw her arms around him. “Nice to meet you, Ms—”
“Rainbow.” She pulled back and smiled. “No formalities around here. We’re all just people.”
“Uh, okay . . . Rainbow. I wanted to thank you for letting me stay for the semester until I could find a place of my own. I’m happy to payrent.”
“I won’t hear of it.” She waved a hand shushing him. “Stay as long as you like. Whew, it’s going to be a scorcher today. Lucky for you, the air conditioners I ordered were just installed this morning.” She wiped a hand over herbrow.
Greg’s elbow jabbed my ribs. With shocked eyes, he gestured toward Rainbow.
“Oh. My. God,” he mouthed.
I was going to kill him. So what if my aunt looked like she was living in the Age of Aquarius.
And then I sawit.
Rolling my eyes, I jabbed himback.
“Thanks, Aunt Berna . . . uh, Rainbow. You didn’t have to do that. We don’t want to be any trouble.”
“Don’t be silly. It takes a while to get used to the heat. I see you’re melting already.” She eyed my drenched T-shirt. “Come on into the house and have some icedtea.”
“Holy flashback batman!” Greg said the moment we stepped inside. “I’m definitely staying now. No way I’m going to find anything better thanthis.”
It was as if I’d walked through a time warp and landed in the ’70s. Seriously. It was like a rainbow had puked all over my aunt’s living room. The walls were painted the same shade of purple and greens as the outside. Yellow and orange shag rugs littered the floor. Instead of the traditional furniture, there were beanbag chairs and velvet pillows of all shapes and sizes. A small couch covered with a tie-dye bed sheet sat under a window.
“I love the décor.” Greg beamed. “Nicole, check out the fishnets.”
Stapled to the ceiling hung fishnets that framed a variety of artwork. Most were of rainbow-colored moons and flowers. My aunt really, really, really liked rainbows.
“Uh, yeah, very pretty,” I said, looking at the bright yellow peace sign that filled up one of the walls.
“I like lots of color. It makes everything cheerful,” she said. “You don’t think it’s too much, doyou?”
“No,” Greg and I said in unison.
“Good.” She opened the door to a small room. “This is your room, Nicole. I painted it for you, but you can change it if youwant.”
I hesitated not sure what kind of crazy to expect. Plastering a smile, I stepped into the room. No matter what it looked like, I was going to like it. I didn’t want to hurt Rainbow’s feelings after she’d been so generous.
The room looked normal compared to the rest of house with pale yellow colored walls. Sunlight filtered in through a large window. The ceiling fan hummed as the blades spun, creating a cool breeze and making the white curtains flutter. The room was about the size of my bathroom in New York, but I didn’t care. It had a bed, nightstand, desk, and a full-length mirror hanging on the closet door. It had everything I needed. Yet, I had the oddest feeling.
The back of my neck tingled, and my arms broke out into goose bumps.
“Is the room okay?” Rainbow asked.
There was something about the room that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I brushed my hand over the small nightstand. It was strange how familiar the roomfelt.
“Yeah, it’s great. Thank you somuch.”
“Wonderful. Well, I’ll let you cool off while I show Greg his room down thehall.”
I sank onto the bed and laid back. As soon as my head touched the pillow, an image of a gorgeous guy flashed through my mind: shaggy bangs, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and a sexy smile.
I jolted up. Who the hell wasthat?
The vision was so real, like a memory. It couldn’t be. I didn’t know anyone who looked likethat.
Shaking my head, I laid back again. It had to be from one of the late night movies Greg and I had watched. I was just tired, and my mind was playing tricks onme.
I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of the fan as I drifted to sleep, hoping that I’d made the right decision to go off on myown.
The dream began like always: flashes of colored lights, the smell of popcorn and cotton candy in the air, and him. I didn’t know who he was, and I could never see his face, no matter how hard I tried. There was only the rumbling sound of his laugh, the feel of a muscular arm around my waist, and the feather-light kiss on my forehead. When I tried to look up to see his face, he and the crowds around us disappeared, leaving me alone in the shadows. And each time, a cold emptiness filled me. It was so painful that I’d wake up crying out, my cheeks and pillow wet with tears and a dull ache in my chest.
This time the dream was more intense, more real. His voice called out my name in desperation. I ran to the voice, somehow knowing he was in trouble and if I couldn’t reach him, he’d die. I propelled myself through the dark, but no matter how hard I pushed, I was stuck in the same spot. It was as if some unknown force held meback.
I stopped and bent over, pressing my hands against my knees, gasping for air. I couldn’t reach him. I wasn’t strong enough. Then I heard a little girl laughing and calling out my name in a high-pitched, singsong voice. There was a flash of freckles and strawberry blond pigtails followed by a scream.
Dread filled my entire being. Without a moment’s hesitation, I ran in her direction. I sobbed as I listened to his voice and the little girl’s calling for me, begging me to come back to them. I ran harder, but I still couldn’t reachthem.
Then there was a loud whoosh cutting off their cries. White noise filled my ears, growing louder by the second. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I waited in the dark, straining to hear their voices again.
Wind slammed against me, leaving me breathless. It was so hard, I could barely hold myself upright. Then I heard it—the sound of a freight train. Slowly, I turned. A bright light flashed and all around me was white. My legs gave out from under me and I screamed.
“Nicole, you’re dreaming again. Wake up, Nicole!”
I jolted up. Strong arms wrapped around me as I gasped.
“What happened? Where amI?”
“You’re in your bedroom at Rainbow’s house. We moved in yesterday, remember?”
My eyes focused and I gazed into Greg’s concerned face. I let out a slow breath.
I was at my aunt’s house in Texas. Today was the first day of college classes. A freight train didn’t flatten me. Now if only my heart would catch up with my brain before it crashed through my ribs and headed for the hills.
“You were having that dream again, weren’tyou?”
Greg found out about my crazy dream when we went camping in his backyard years ago. I had woken up sobbing, and he’d comfortedme.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I had punched him in the nose when he’d tried to wake me. We took turns crying and going through an entire roll of paper towels that night.
“Yeah. It’s been getting worse the last couple of months.”
“You could say that. And the dreams are creeping into my day. I keep having these—what are you doing?”
He held up a finger and whipped out a notepad and pen from his back pocket.
“So how do you feel about that?” He leaned forward in a classic psychologistpose.
“You haven’t even gone to your first psychology class and you’re already diagnosing me?” I laughed.
“Practicing, babe.” He winked. “Seriously, aren’t you taking yourmeds?”
Reaching over for my backpack, I took out the medication that my mother’s five-hundred-dollar-an-hour shrink had prescribed for me when I’d gone through my Emo phase in high school. Waving it at Greg, the pills rattled in the almost full bottle.
“I hate taking these things. They make me feel funky, and they really don’t help thatmuch.”
“Take them, woman. Those dreams of yours are messing with your beauty sleep. And girlfriend, I hate to tell you this but . . .” He pointed to the mirror across theroom.
I was a mess. My hair was all over the place, mostly plastered in wet strands across my face. And something weird was going on with my skin. I jumped off the bed to get a closerlook.
“Oh my god! What happened to myface?”
Pillow creases lined bright pink cheeks and there were white circles around my eyes. They were the exact same shape as my sunglasses.
He chuckled. “I think you had a little too much Texassun.”
“No way! How could I get sunburned sofast?”
“We’re in Texas, remember? The land of y’all. And you, Ms. Albino, need to learn to lather on theSPF.”
I delicately touched my fingers across my face, wincing. “I can’t go to class looking likethis.”
I glanced at his smug, yet perfectly tan, reflection. “You were outside longer than I was, why don’t you look like a red crayon?”
“It’s the magic of mineral foundation with SPF and buffing. You can borrow mine if you want.” He gave me his model perfect smile before turning to the nightstand.
“Here.” He shoved what looked like a breakfast taco into my hand. “You look like you could use somefood.”
“Greg, I swear, you’re so metrosexual. You wear more makeup than Ido.”
“Yeah, but I’m totally worth it. And stop frowning; you’ll get more wrinkles than you have already.”
I grumbled, taking a bite of the taco. I winced at the bitter taste. “What the hell am I eating?”
“That, my friend, is a tofu breakfast taco. You failed to mention that Rainbow is a vegetarian. There’s nothing that even closely resembles food in the house. Now hurry up and get dressed. I want to stop somewhere for some real food before class.”
After quickly throwing on some clothes and borrowing Greg’s magic makeup, Rainbow called us into the kitchen.
“What did you do with your taco?” I whispered. I didn’t want her to think we didn’t appreciate her making breakfast.
“I flushed it down the toilet. I think.”
“It wouldn’t die! I attacked it with a plunger though. I think it’s gone forgood.”
There was a click and a bright flash.
“Hey!” Greg rubbed hiseyes.
“Sorry about that. I forget how these things can blind you.” Rainbow placed a camera on the counter next to a hand-carved wooden box. “I just wanted a picture to add to my collection of Nicole’s photos.”
“You have pictures ofme?”
“Of course I do. Take alook.”
The box was filled with photos of me from kindergarten to my senior year. I couldn’t believe my mother had sent them to her. I didn’t even know they existed. I dutifully posed for my school photos every year, but I never saw copies of them. I figured my parents were too busy tocare.
“Mom sent these toyou?”
“Not really.” She looked down, fiddling with the camera. “I made a deal with her that the school would send me a copy of any photos I requested.”
“I don’t understand.”
Soft brown eyes looked up to meet mine. “Your mother and I were never close, but when I found out she was pregnant with you, I wanted to be a part of your life. She didn’t think I would be a good influence on you because of the way Ilive.”
I furrowed my brow. “The way youlive?”
Greg poked my ribs and gave me a knowing look. It took me a few seconds before it hit me. She played for the other team like hedid.
I couldn’t believe my mother would do something like that to her own sister. She was a classical musician who traveled the world for crying out loud. How narrow-minded could sheget?
“I promised her that I wouldn’t sell this to the media.” She held up a picture of my mom wearing a skintight fuchsia bell-bottom jumpsuit. The curls in her permed hair were so tight, it looked like a brown cotton ball on her head. Whoa. This was a side of my mother I’d never seen. She’d die if this ever got out. “I hope you’re okay withthat.”
I brushed over the dozens of childhood photos in the box. My childhood. Tears pricked my eyes at what my aunt haddone.
Okay? I was more than okay with it. In less than one day, my aunt had shown me more unconditional love than my parents ever had. In her own way, Rainbow had been with me and watched me growup.
“You’re the best, Rainbow.” I hugged her. I definitely made the right decision cominghere.
Smiling from the warm afterglow of Rainbow’s confession, Greg and I drove through the small town in search of a pancake house on the way to campus. With each street we passed, the glow faded and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It was the same eerie feeling I had last night. Everything looked familiar. The streets, the houses, even the traffic lights. I turned a corner, anticipating that I’d have to stop, and when I did, there was a stoplight. It was like I knew where I was going without having to think about it. It was instinctual.
I wondered if my parents had performed on campus and I was just too young to remember. Sometimes, as a favor to their music faculty friends, they’d provide a master workshop and give a concert for the student body. They rarely did it and if they did, it was mostly at prestigious schools of music like Juilliard or the New England Conservatory. I doubted that they’d come to a place like Texas State, especially since my mother swore she’d never step foot in Texas again.
I looked over at Greg, who was fiddling with the radio and grumbling about missing his CD collection. For someone who wasn’t a morning person, he was way too animated as he flipped through one country music station after another.
“Uh! I can’t find a decent radio station. Oh well, when in Rome . . .” He threw up his hands and leaned back against his seat. He sang along with George Straight crooning, off-key of course, about all his exes living in Texas.
Giggling, I turned my attention back to the road and screeched to halt, narrowly missing the car stopped in front ofus.
“Damn, woman. Can you get us to campus in one piece? I’m too young and cute todie.”
My heart pounded against my chest as I stared at the bridge in front us. Blurred images sputtered in and out of in my mind like static on TV: Dark, rolling clouds; birds; and tree branches whirling through theair.
Everything began to spin and dread washed over me. I gripped the steering wheel, gasping.
A loud honking shook me awake and the images disappeared.
“Wow! That looks like some accident.” He gazed out the window, seeming to not have noticed my mini panic attack. “Truck versus bridge. Looks like the truckwon.”
Taking a deep breath, I gently pressed the accelerator. Every fiber in my being screamed to get out of there, but there was nowhere to go with the bridge down to only onelane.
My breath shook as we inched forward. I brushed my sweaty hands against my pants as I watched the tow truck pull the red truck from the edge of the bridge. Metal screeched as a guardrail broke apart and fell off the ledge, landing with a splash in the river below. A sudden burst of cold hit against my chest, and I bit down on my lip, holding back a scream.
Why was I freakingout?
The moment we crossed, I pressed my foot on the gas and zoomed past the cars in front of me, ignoring the angry honks and waving hand gestures.
“What’s wrong? Are youokay?”
“Nothing. I’m fine.” The beating of my heart slowed as the bridge disappeared from view. “I’m just hungry.”
He gave me a skeptical look. My stomach rumbled oncue.
“See?” I plastered on a fake smile. I rarely kept secrets from him, but this was just too weird. It was probably just nerves. I was sure once the first day of class jitters wore off, everything would be back to normal.
I loved Greg. He was family. But man, he had the tiniest bladder known to mankind. I knew he shouldn’t have had that second cup of coffee.
I pressed myself against the wall as crowds of students carrying books and backpacks passed. Most knew exactly where they were going. It was easy to pick out the college freshman. They all had that lost, deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, peering at room numbers as they walked down thehall.
Juggling my iced coffee in one hand and a campus map in the other, I searched for the chemistry building as I waited for Greg to come out of the men’s restroom. If he didn’t come out soon, we were going to be late, and I was going to be showing up to class drenched. What was with the lack of AC in this building? I was so sweaty, my sunglasses kept sliding down to the tip of my nose as I searched for the chemistry building.
The campus was huge. I flipped the map over. It took two sides of the large paper just to cover the entire campus. The paper rustled as I rotated it, trying to figure which way was up. I didn’t know why I was so nervous. And it didn’t help that being nervous made me clumsy.
There was a loud ripping sound and a portion of the map fluttered to the floor and disappeared into the crowd.
Great. Knowing my luck, that was the part that showed where the chemistry building was located.
Irritated, I pushed open the men’s restroom door open. We needed to go before I started freaking out again. If I had to have another panic attack, I preferred to do it in a much cooler building.
“Greg! Did you fall in or something? You better not be messing with yourhair.”
“Excuse me, ma’am.” A guy wearing a cowboy hat and boots stood at the doorway.
Good Lord, we were so in Texas.
“Sorry about that,” I muttered as I stepped back into the crowded hallway. “Excuse me. Sorry, didn’t mean to whack you with my backpack.”
It seemed like the entire Texas State student body was walking down this hall. And of course, clumsy me made sure I bumped into every single one of them. A couple of students gave me a funny look. I didn’t blame them. It was a toss up what they were staring at—my sunburned face or the long stringy hair that kept falling overit.
Finding a corner with less student traffic, I plopped on the ground and dug into my backpack, taking out my iPod. I just needed to calm down and stop acting all McGrouchy. With earplugs securely in place and Sheryl Crow crooning in my ears, I took a deep breath and searched for a hair-tie so I could put up myhair.
I pulled out a pencil and sighed. It would have to do. Placing the pencil in my mouth, I gathered my hair into a ponytail and attempted to twist it around my finger. Sweat rolled down my face as strands kept slipping.
“Thon of aith!”
A girl with thick raven hair stopped in front of me and raised an eyebrow at my muffled curse.
I spat the pencil out of my mouth. “Sorry, notyou.”
She shook her head and headed out of the building.
Way to go. My first day of college and I was already cussing out strangers.
Placing the pencil back in my mouth, I jerked my hair back, determined to get it to behave. With a quick twist, I jabbed the pencil through the bun and finally got it tohold.
“Yes!” Feeling much cooler, I tackled the map. After studying it for a few moments, I finally found the building.
On the opposite side of campus.
I glanced down at my watch again.
Double crap! Class starts in five minutes.
I jumped to my feet, ready to march into the restroom and drag Greg out, when my face crashed into somethinghard.
Covered with a crisp white shirt.
And smelling oh so sinfullygood.
There was something about touching a six—no, eight-pack that shut down all sanity. If I had been thinking straight, or thinking at all, I would’ve stopped groping the man and apologized.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
We were caught in the center of a mass of students. They bumped against me, shoving me even closer to the buff stranger.
Then he touchedme.
And there were fireworks and neon lights.
I was on fire with that simple touch, a stranger’s touch.
Yet, it felt so familiar.
His chest rumbled. A deep muffled voice snapped me back to reality. That’s when I felt something cold andwet.
And I remembered I was holding coffee.
Slowly, I moved back. A dark coffee stain had spread across his pristine white shirt and charcoal gray tie. It was normal for a college student to wear a tie and shiny black shoes to class. Right?
Gulping, my eyes inched up from his shoes, pressed gray slacks, and white—though, now mostly coffee colored—shirt.
I paused, studying a clenched jaw lined with stubble, which at any other time I’d find incredibly sexy. I took a breath, bracing myself to look the man in the eye and apologize for the coffee spill and the groping. My breath hitched when I gazed into an exquisite pair of sapphire blueeyes.
Even in your darkest hour, I’ll be by your side, lovingyou.
The words echoed through my mind, seeming to come out of nowhere. A memory? Something I’d heard on the radio?
My pulse hammered in my ears, and it took everything I had not to lean into him and drown in those blue eyes. He seemed so familiar. I wracked my brain, wondering if I’d ever met him before. Maybe at one of my parents’ dinner parties? He was definitely not the type of man anyone could forget with those broad shoulders, rich brown hair, a stunningly handsome face, and perfectly shaped lips. Lips that were moving.
“What did you say?” I blinked, wondering why I couldn’t hearhim.
He scowled, making his face look dangerous and sexy. The pull I felt toward him was unbelievable. I didn’t even know this man and already I was enraptured.
My eyes widened with surprise as he reached out to my face. The palm of his hand brushed against my cheek. His touch was lightning. A surge of electricity surged through my body. My heart went into double time as he leaned closer. I held my breath, afraid to move, as his lips drifted down to me. Piercing blue eyes mixed with flecks of gold held onto to mine. I was mesmerized.
There was a tug on my ears followed by a sudden whoosh as the earplugs ploppedout.
“I said, you should watch where you’re going. You’re making melate.”
The sexy stranger stepped back, wiping wet hands on his slacks.
I blinked, confused. Had I lost my mind? Turn off the hormones and help the poorman.
I fumbled in my backpack, looking for something to help him cleanup.
“I, uh, you’re shirt . . . my coffee . . . stain . . .”
“Very good. You’ve managed to identify key components to the consequences of your careless actions.”
Who in the hell did he think he was? I gritted my teeth. Hot or not, this butthead was pissing meoff.
“Look, I’m sorry about the coffee. I know I wasn’t watching where I was going. I’m running lateand—”
“I don’t need nor do I want your apologies. You’re not the only one who has somewhere to be. Students.” Mr. Butthead shook his head mumbling as he marched down thehall.
Ugh! What a prick!
I looked down at the pale yellow blouse I’d carefully picked out for my first day of class. It was dotted with brown spots.
“Great. Just great. Stupid sexy guy with his stupid blue eyes.” I could go back home, change, and miss my first class, or just suck it up and run like hell across campus.
I glanced at my watch.
Run like hell itis.
I charged into the men’s restroom and found Greg staring at the mirror, arranging and rearranging each strand of his already perfectly coiffedhair.
“Hey!” he cried when I dragged him out. “I wasn’tdone.”
“You may be okay with that big ass sunglasses, pencil bun thing you have going on, but some of us like to look our best. And what’s up with that big stain on your blouse. I don’t think I can be seen with someone so scruffy looking.” He flashed a teasinggrin.
Growling, I rubbed my hands vigorously through his hair. “There. We match. Nowrun.”
Cold air hit against my skin, making me break out in goose bumps the moment I opened the classroomdoor.
“Oh thank god.” I held onto the doorframe, gasping for breath, waiting for the black dots to stop whirling around.
Note to self: do not run half a mile with ten pounds of textbooks on yourback.
“Out of shape much?” Greg took my backpack and guided me to a couple of empty chairs.
I plopped in my seat, too exhausted to argue with him. When I finally caught my breath, I looked around the auditorium. It was huge! There had to be at least one hundred seats and almost all of them were filled. And no one had coffee stains on their clothes.
“You’ve been acting strange all morning, Nicole. Nervous?”
Concerned blue eyes gazed at me. I could never hide anything from him. He always read mewell.
“Look, you don’t have to take this class. And you don’t have to hide behind those sunglasses.” He tapped the lens. “You could always dropit.”
“I want to. Really, Ido.”
“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
“I know that. I just wanted to challenge myself.”
All my life I’d felt like the average person. No one special. No special talents like my parents. Not super smart or funny, like Greg. I was just plain Nicole.
“I admire your initiative, but chemistry on a Monday morning?” He hunched over, his forehead landing on the desk with a soft thud. “You seriously need to rethink your priorities. Like sleep. Even the professor isn’t here yet. He’s probably still sleepingtoo.”
A high-pitched squeal caught my attention. A cute girl with bright red hair jumped up, waving to someone standing at the back of the classroom.
There were a few whistles and wolf calls as a raven-haired girl sauntered down the stairs to her friend. She looked like a model with perfect silky hair lying in waves on her shoulder and sultry dark eyes. She had killer cheekbones and pouty red lips. The tiny fitted T-shirt and jeans accentuated her perfect figure. And there wasn’t a coffee-stain in sight.
“I can’t believe you’re going to take Cooper’s class again. I thought he gave you the brush off last spring,” Redsaid.
“Last spring was a warmup.” Gianna pulled a compact mirror from her purse. “I’m going full blast thisyear.”
Red giggled. “You’re so bad, Gianna. If I thought I had a chance with Professor Cooper, I’d totally go for him. He’s hot and loaded from all those patients hehas.”
“Patents,” she corrected, rolling her eyes. She gazed into the mirror and lightly dusted her nose. “He has to be someone’s sugar daddy. He might as well bemine.”
Ugh! She was one of those girls. I sat back in my seat, disgusted.
“I still don’t get why he’s even here.” Red popped a piece of gum in her mouth. “Who leaves a job at MIT for Texas State? He has to be married. Maybe his wife got a job intown.”
“Nope. Totally single.” Gianna snapped the compactshut.
“Divorced? Fleeing an ex or something?”
“Nope. As far as I know, he hasn’t hooked up with anyone. He spends all his time in the lab. But I’m going to changethat.”
“Oh really?” Red blew a bubble and sucked it in, snappingit.
“Yep. A man like that has to get his release somewhere.”
“He didn’t seem to be interested when you took the class last spring.”
“I didn’t have a plan back then. I donow.”
“Yeah, right.” Red blew another quick bubble. “Failing chemistry and re-taking it a second time is not aplan.”
I rolled my eyes. Here I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pass a college level chemistry class and this Gianna chick saw it as an opportunity to find her next sugar daddy.
“Oh, my sweet baby Jesus!” Greg grabbed myarm.
“Um, ouch?” I snatched my arm out of his grasp. “What’s yourdeal?”
The room grew louder as people stared and pointed toward the back of the auditorium. Red’s eyes grew wide and a pink bubble fell out of her mouth and onto herlap.
Swaggering down the auditorium steps was an Adonis in a Texas State T-shirt. He moved slowly as if making sure that everyone had time to take in his long, lean body. A couple of girls called out to him. He flashed them a dimpled smile, revealing perfect white teeth. He was gorgeous. All eyes were on him and he soaked in the admiration from men and women alike.
When he flexed the muscled arm holding onto the strap of his backpack, Red sighed dramatically, fanning herself.
I rolled myeyes.
“Do you know who that is?” Greg squealed.
“Don’t know. Don’t care.” I poked my nose into my backpack looking for an extra pencil and notepad. My first day of college was turning out to be a repeat of high school. Couldn’t the professor just show up already so I could get this class overwith?
“That’s Travis Brandon.”
“He’s only the greatest college quarterback in the history of football.”
“Seriously?” My eyes were getting a workout today with all the rolling they were doing. “How would you even know that? You don’t watch football.”
“I don’t. But I watch him. Everyone does. Holy shit! He’s coming thisway.”
“This seat taken?” Travis stood next to the empty seat beside Greg. The lights overhead casted a glow over his golden locks. Greg was speechless.
Well, that was a first. He’d never been at a loss for words. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Red and Gianna shoving, trying to push each other out of their seat to make space for the university’s star quarterback.
Nice friendship they had going on there.
“Nope. All yours,” I said, answering for a flabbergastedGreg.
“I’m Travis. Travis Brandon.”
Greg stared at his extended hand as if he’d never seen one before.
“I’m Nicole and this is my friend, Greg.” I elbowedhim.
“You’re Travis Brandon,” hesaid.
“Yeah, I just said that.” Travis looked at him curiously and then turned his attention to me. “So, I hear this Professor Cooper is a real hardass.”
He leaned over his desk. Brown eyes drifted down to my chest and then back up to meet my eyes again.
I hated it when guys did that. I could give him the benefit of the doubt that he was checking out my cool coffee stains, but nope, he was doing it again, eyes on boobs.
“Then why are you taking the class?” I snapped.
His eyes flicked up. “It’s the last one I need before graduation, and it’s the only one that didn’t interfere with football practice.”
“So glad to hear you have your priorities straight.”
Greg turned to me, his eyes bulging.
“Opstay eingbay osay uderay,” he said, gritting his teeth with a fake smile. He was just like a professional ventriloquist. The man had talent and an obvious man crush on Travis.
“Papers and pencils out,” a harsh voiced echoed loudly in the auditorium.
The door at the front of the room slammed shut as the professor marched to the lectern. And as soon as I saw his face, Idied.
Mr. Butthead in all his sexy butthead glory glared from behind the lectern.
Aww, crap! Mr. Butthead was Professor Butthead. Myprofessor.
“In a couple of minutes, you’ll be taking a quiz. I demand excellence in this course. I anticipate half of you will drop out by the end of the day and another third will give up by the end of the week. Due to your inadequate high school preparation, this quiz will allow me to assess how far I have to lower my expectations.”
Students jumped in their seats when he slammed his briefcase onto the lectern. As he rifled through his briefcase, pulling out a stack of papers, I noticed a sheen of sweat on his forehead. It was way too hot to be wearing a sports jacket. When he lifted his arm to wipe his brow, a brown coffee stain peeked from under the buttonedcoat.
“Don’t worry. You’ll do fine,” Gregsaid.
“Oh, uh, yeah, the quiz.” I was less worried about the quiz and more worried that Professor Cooper would notice me. I sank down low in my seat. It was my fault that he was late. And he looked royally pissed.
Professor Cooper looked up and scanned the auditorium. Students stared back at him as if they had no clue what he was talking about. They were probably still in shock.
“Do you need an invitation? Papers. Pencils. Now!”
There was a flurry of movement as students scrambled to get their materials together. I guess they thought that since it was the first day of class, he would take it easy. Most professors called out roll, went over the syllabus, and called it aday.
“Hey, man, you got a pencil?” Travis whispered toGreg.
“Yeah, sure.” Greg, suddenly finding his voice and looking way too eager to be helpful, searched frantically for another pencil. He took one look at me and tugged at mybun.
“There will be silence during theexam.”
Professor Cooper’s voice sounded way too close. Gulping, I slowly looked up and there he was, with a stack of quizzes in his hand, sapphire eyes blazing.
Shit! He recognizedme.
“Do you think you can handle that, Ms . . . ?”
“Ashford,” I squeaked.
“Ms. Ashford. Please remove your sunglasses. Cheating will not be tolerated in this class.”
“I don’t . . . uh, yes, sir, Professor, sir, Cooper,” I stammered as I fumbled to take off my glasses. As soon as I had them off, I gazed back up athim.
His blue eyes widened as they locked with mine. In that moment, his entire face shifted. The hard glint wasgone.
Images and sounds flashed through my mind again: a disco ball, skates, puffy white clouds, and a little girl laughing. A mixture of feelings coursed through me: confusion, happiness, grief.
I held onto my desk, dizzy with sensory overload. I tried to look away, to run out of the classroom. I was falling apart. But I couldn’t look away. Something was pulling me, holding me to him like gravity.
“Nicole,” he breathed.
I blinked, confused at the sudden surge of euphoria as he said my name. What was going on? Why couldn’t I look away? How did he know myname?
As if coming out of a dream, the soft expression vanished and the hard glint returned. “Try not to spill anything on these.”
He dropped the quiz onto mylap.
What the hell was I lookingat?
I rotated the paper, hoping that something resembling English would magically appear. There were all these squiggly marks swirling on the page. I had no idea what they were or what they meant.
I bit down on my pencil, feeling sweat bead on my forehead, even in the cold room. There was nothing like the clock ticking to remind me I had forty-five minutes to get my head out of my ass or fail my first ever college exam. Talk about pressure.
Squaring my shoulders, I studied the first question. I wasn’t going to let my freaky-deaky hallucinations get in my way. It was obvious that the stress of starting my first college class was getting to me, and I wasn’t going to let it. What was I thinking? That Professor Cooper somehow magically knew my name? He had the class roster, and I’d told him my last name. Duh!
It hadn’t even been five minutes when a handful of students crumpled their quizzes and left. Even Greg seemed to have a problem. His face was all scrunched in deep concentration and he kept erasing his answers.
Travis seemed to be having a little too much fun. He was chuckling to himself, his dimples flashing when he laughed. I leaned a little to try to get a better look at what he was scribbling. It was a figure drawing of Professor Cooper with devil’s horns and a goatee.
Travis looked up at me and winked.
I rolled my eyes. I didn’t have time for high school pranks.
“Is there a problem, Ms. Ashford?”
I jumped in my seat. Chairs squeaked in the silent auditorium as a dozen pairs of eyes turned tome.
“Uh . . . no, sir.”
“Then might I suggest you use your time wisely and keep your eyes on your own paper.”
Tears stung my eyes. I was so embarrassed. My eyes flicked toGreg.
“You can do this,” he mouthed.
I nodded. He was right. I wasn’t going to let Professor Butthead get to me. I took a deep breath and tackled the first problem.
What is the chemical formula of ammonium sulfate, and what is its molecular weight?
I bit my lip, twirling and un-twirling a strand of hair around my finger as I thought back to my high school chemistry class. It was one of those nervous habits that my mother hated. I smiled when the answer finally came to me, and I wrote itdown.
See, you can so do this. Just work on one problem at atime.
I moved on to the next problem, then the next. I was at the last problem when I had the oddest sensation hit me. It was like someone was watching me. I laughed. If someone was trying to cheat off of my paper, they were crazy, or probably just a crazy football player.
Slowly, I lifted my eyes, careful to keep my head down. From underneath my lashes, I glanced over at Travis. He was still doodling on his paper. At least this time, it was just geometric patterns.
Carefully, my eyes drifted to Professor Cooper. Soft eyes watched me as if waiting for something.
My breath hitched. Was this a trick? Maybe he felt sorry that he embarrassed me in front of the entire class. Or maybe I was a moron and he knew it and he was watching me to make sure I didn’t cheat.
He opened his wallet and took out what looked like a small photo. His eyes flicked up to me again, and he took a step forward. I froze, holding my breath. Slowly, he walked in my direction his eyes flicking back and forth between me and the photo.
What was he doing?
Startled, he snapped at the student by his side. “What?”
The poor kid quivered in his shoes, his ears turning a brightpink.
“I-I-I’m d-done with the q-quiz.”
The paper shook in his hand as he held itup.
Cooper’s eyes flitted to me, and I quickly looked down at my paper gripping the top of my desk for dear life. Why did he keep staring atme?
“Fine.” He snatched the paper. “If you’re one hundred percent sure that your answers are accurate, you’re free to leave. Are yousure?”
“Then why are you still standinghere?”
“Will you be passing out your syllabus?”
The poor kid looked like he was going to pass out when Professor Cooper’s voice boomed, “Attention class. For those of you who didn’t read the announcement posted outside of the auditorium doors and those of you who seem not to be able to follow instructions,” he glared back at the kid who was now green, “the syllabus will be emailed to the class tonight.”
He then turned to the student. “Any more questions?”
“No,” the kid squeaked and dashed out of the auditorium.
“Pencils down,” Cooper said. “If you weren’t able to complete a basic quiz that covers the rudimentary aspects of chemistry, then you more than likely won’t survive this class. For others of you who were able to complete all the questions, congratulations, you canread.”
The students filed to the front of the room to hand him their papers.