Words to Live and Write by

I am willing to fall Because I have learned how to rise.

I craft Love from heartbreak, Compassion from shame, Grace from disappointment, Courage from failure.

I am among the brave and brokenhearted, and I am rising strong.

(credit to Brene Brown)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Chapters 2, 3, 4 - Hook, Line, and Sinker


Because it was demanded of me, here is more of my book. Chapters 2-4. (See Chapter 1 here.)
After reading these, you'll either love it, hate it, or decide you couldn't care less. Whichever it is, I'd love to know. And if you happen to be someone who loves it, let me say, "There's more where that came from!" Another 300 pages, at least. So if you want to see the finished version, you need to send some words of encouragement or, even better, volunteer to babysit so I can work on writing the finishing pieces. Because this is as much as you're going to see on my blog. The rest will come in PUBLISHED format. (Someday...)


Chapter 2. Football Fever


Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Sunlight filled my room, waking me up early. Because it was November, I knew the clear sky meant it would be chilly, especially tonight. I didn’t want to brave the cold outside the covers, but I was hungry and my stomach simply wouldn’t let me sleep in any longer.

I stood in front of my closet for an uncharacteristically long time deliberating what to wear. I felt—what was the right word—giddy. Don't be silly. It’s just a football game. I finally closed the closet door, knowing I would be back at least twice to change.

I was surprised to find Kerry awake; she'd already finished breakfast by the time I left my room. Even stranger, she seemed positively delighted about it.

"Morning, Kerry," I said, suspicion creeping into my voice. "You seem awfully alert today."

Her eyes widened. She gave a forced half-smile. She's up to something, I thought.

"Oh, hi! Fancy you being up so early." Kerry's words tumbled out almost too quickly to follow. Her eyes kept darting between me and the door. "Well, I uh… Big day today! Gotta go! Things to see, people to do! I mean, um… well, you know. See ya, Rhe!"

She dashed for the door. Whatever else she was, Kerry was a miserable liar. I decided it wasn’t worth worrying over and started assembling my breakfast.

I spent the rest of the day aimlessly attempting to distract myself. As much as I hated to admit it, I was a bit too excited about getting another glimpse of Jaden that evening. I tried to clean the apartment--my go-to when I needed to relieve stress - but it didn't take long. I called home after lunch, but there wasn’t anything exciting to say.

Halfheartedly, I started to read my weekend assignment in Metamorphoses for Western Mythology. Well, “reading” might be a bit of an overstatement. I was casually skimming, my thoughts elsewhere. By the time I reached the story of Narcissus, I found myself totally absorbed in a particularly realistic daydream.

In my mind, I was wandering through a forest, delighted by the sounds and exquisite shades of green surrounding me. After a while, I came to a pool of water and stretched out next to it to rest. Intrigued by the utter stillness of the water, I leaned forward to see my reflection. I gasped when I saw the image in the water. It wasn’t a reflection of me, it was Jaden. I turned around quickly, expecting to catch him looking over my shoulder, but no one was there.
Confused, I slowly returned my gaze to the water; Jaden was still there, looking out at me with a bemused grin on his flawless face. He was so perfect it hurt. I reached out to touch his face, but as soon as my fingers brushed the water, his image rippled and disappeared. I groaned inwardly at my own stupidity, and held my breath until the water stilled again. Why did I have to be fixated on someone so unattainable?

When the reflection finally reappeared, I was relieved to see Jaden’s face. Staring into those infinitely deep brown eyes, I knew I would never be able to touch the object of my affection. The instant I tried, he would disappear. All I could do was look at him; it would never be enough to satisfy the ache in my heart.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I jumped at the sound of the front door opening. Kerry stuck her head in my room, looking pleased with herself. “The game starts in an hour. You gonna be ready to go soon?”

I looked over at the clock. Was it that late already? I’d been lost in my daydream for over an hour. I closed my book and tossed it unceremoniously on top of the pile of homework on my desk. I’d get to it later tonight. Football games couldn’t last that long.

I’d never actually been to the football stadium before, so I was a little surprised to see how packed it was when we got there. We climbed the stairs behind the bleachers and entered at the top of the student section, which was one solid mass of green. People had even painted their faces.

I groaned. There was no room anywhere. We’d be sitting at the very top of the stadium. Why hadn’t we left earlier? There was no way I’d be able to see Jaden from up here. Kerry, seeming to sense my disappointment, grabbed my arm and started tugging me down the stairs, past the masses of green. “No worries, Rhe. I got us reserved seats.”

I looked down and had a sudden vision of tripping and falling down the concrete steps. That would be just what I need. Tugging my arm free, I carefully followed Kerry closer and closer to the field. We didn’t stop until we reached the very front row. Kerry greeted the person standing on the aisle with a high five. We crept over half a row of people before we got to our seats—a small space on the bench we could barely squeeze into—right behind the players' benches. I would get a good look at Jaden, alright.

“Kerry, how did you…”

“I’ve got connections,” she smiled. “I can’t help it I was born beautiful. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”

I grinned at her, then turned to look behind us. A few rows back, a group of guys had painted their chests to spell out R-A-M-S. I shivered into my jacket as I looked at their bare skin. Who would go to a game in November without a shirt on? What was it about football that made people act so crazy? More than half the crowd looked drunk already. I’d heard of football fever, but this was ridiculous. If I hadn’t had a reason for disliking the sport before, I did now.

The band started playing and the teams ran out onto the field. The sound that erupted around me was deafening. Kerry whooped and screamed with the rest of the crowd. I just clapped my hands politely, hardly making a sound through my gloves.

“Which one’s Jaden?” I yelled in Kerry’s ear.

She pointed at one of the green jerseys—they all looked the same to me—and shouted, “He’s number 16! Murdock!”

Jaden Murdock. Without thinking, I tried my name out with his: Rheanne Murdock. I wasn’t sure if I liked the sound of it or not. I was instantly embarrassed by myself.

I jumped again at the sound that came from the student section when the game started. As I inspected the people standing closest to me, I saw that several of them had keys in their hands and were shaking them enthusiastically. The significance of this was lost on me.

Silly football fans, I complained to myself.

Watching the field wasn’t much better. I found I was completely clueless. The crowd booed and cheered, and I had no idea why. All I could see when I looked at the field was a bunch of guys lining up and running into each other. How could anyone watch this game?

Eventually, I worked up the courage to ask Kerry about the rules. She just looked at me incredulously.

“I don’t follow sports,” I reminded her.

For a minute, she looked like she was going to tease me about it, then, graciously, she started to explain. “The offense gets four tries to make first down: to move at least ten yards from the line of scrimmage.”

“What’s the line of scrimmage?”

Kerry gaped at me. “Are you serious?” I shrank deeper into my jacket, hoping her question was rhetorical. She shook her head when I didn’t answer and pointed at the field. “See where all the players line up? That’s the line of scrimmage. And those are markers,” she continued, pointing to a man on the sidelines holding what looked like a target on a stick. A string connected it to another target-stick-thing, which was being held a little farther down the side of the field. “One end marks the line of scrimmage, and the distance between the markers is ten yards." Kerry broke off her explanation to boo loudly at something. I waited silently for her to continue.

Leaning close to me and speaking loudly over the noise of the crowd, Kerry gave a brief description of how the sport was played. I could tell she was dumbing down her explanation as much as possible for my sake. The theory seemed basic enough, even if I couldn’t follow what was happening on the field. How can you be so good at school and tests, but not figure out a simple sport? I chided myself.

After a while, I asked, “What does Jaden do?”

“He’s a receiver.”

“So he catches the ball?” I was beginning to feel like a complete dolt. Kerry’s wince didn’t help.

“Yeah, Rhe. He catches the ball.”

“Is he any good?”

She gaped at me again. “Do you live under a rock? Yes! He’s really good!”

“Oh.”

“He’s what they call a play-maker.”

I was getting frustrated by Kerry’s reactions to my questions, so I stopped asking. I still didn’t understand everything, especially why they kept stopping the clock, but as I watched the game, it was easy to see why Jaden was a “play-maker.” Every time the ball was thrown to him, he caught it, sometimes even one-handed.

At one point, I was sure he was too far away to catch the pass, but he launched himself into the air, parallel to the ball, and managed to grab it. He was immediately tackled, mid-air, by the other team’s player and slammed into the ground. I flinched when they landed. I was amazed that he could stand up afterwards, but when he did the whole stadium, including myself, erupted with screams. He was still holding the ball. “Brutally beautiful,” Kerry called it.

The more I watched, the more I realized how little I belonged in Jaden’s world. I didn’t understand anything about football. I didn’t know why people kept tossing girls in the air whenever our team scored, or why they jingled their car keys when the players were at the line of scrimmage. And I certainly didn’t understand how people could be so obsessed with such a silly game.

But this was Jaden’s sport—it was what he did. His world and mine were so far apart that they would never—and probably should never—intersect. Once I realized that, I stopped enjoying the game considerably.

In the last quarter of the game, after Jaden had made a rather impressive touchdown, I watched him jog back to the team benches, fully appreciating the proximity of the seats Kerry had chosen. I could see every detail. Even in full football gear and dripping with sweat, Jaden looked amazing. He tipped his head back, basking in the glow of the stadium lights. Then he turned and looked at the stands. Directly at me.

I froze, not daring to move. My heart started racing, panicking. Why would he look at me? Maybe because you’re staring at him, I thought. That’s got to look kind of creepy.

I turned to look at Kerry, then at the guy on my left. They were both watching the other players on the field who were lining up to run into each other again. I looked back at Jaden. He was still looking at me, smiling now. And waving.

My mouth dropped open. He was waving? Maybe he was looking at someone behind me, someone he knew. He probably didn’t even notice I was here. After all, he didn’t know me; but if I kept staring, he just might recognize me as the freak who was gawking at him in the food court.

I forced myself to look at the field, mindlessly watching the teams tackle each other. But it just wasn’t exciting when Jaden wasn’t playing.

Then Kerry elbowed me. “Jaden is waving at you.”

My eyes flew back to him. He was still waving. But at me? Kerry was mistaken. She had to be. I stood there waiting for him to stop waving. He didn’t.

“Wave back!” Kerry hissed.

Hesitantly, I lifted my hand. I didn’t actually wave; I just opened up my hand and spread my fingers. I didn’t want to look stupid if he was actually waving to somebody else. Jaden just smiled more broadly, winked, and turned away.

I was numb with shock. My hand slowly drifted back down, pulling my jaw open with it. He’d winked. At me! Why?

Kerry laughed her tinkling laugh, and something clicked in my mind.

You did this!”

“Did what?” she asked innocently.

“You set this up.” The pieces were falling together. “You got us seats here, practically on top of the football team, so Jaden could wave at me. And he only waved because… because you told him to!” My voice was shrill with horror.

“You told him about me! Kerry, how could you?” I felt betrayed. Hadn’t I told her I didn’t have a crush on Jaden? Even if I do, I justified, what right does she have to play matchmaker? Fuming, I stood up to leave. I wasn’t about to sit here and humiliate myself while Jaden charitably threw me a smile and a wink because Kerry put him up to it.

“Sit down, Rhe.” Kerry rolled her eyes and pulled me down forcibly. I scowled at her. “Listen,” she said apologetically, “I admit that I got us seats this close so you could see Jaden. But I didn’t tell him anything about you. I swear! I haven’t even talked to him since we had chemistry together last year.”

I wanted to believe her. Did I dare?

“If that’s true, why did he wave at me?” I asked.

“I don’t know. He did that on his own.” Then she smiled. “Maybe this thing you’ve got for him is mutual.”

“For the last time, I don’t have a thing!

Kerry threw up her hands, trying to stave off another fit. “Alright, alright. If you say so.”

I harrumphed and crossed my arms. I did not have a thing. I was just intrigued by what I'd felt when I'd looked in Jaden’s eyes. Who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t my fault he happened to be gorgeous. The odds that it was mutual were impossibly small. It would be absurd.

At the same time, my heart fluttered with hope, refusing to believe what my mind was telling it. He’d waved at me. Singled me out in a stadium of hundreds. What if… What if the feeling was mutual? What if he’d experienced the same weird sense of déjà vu that I’d had in the food court? What if he was as fascinated by me as I was by him? Was that even possible? Could the campus football star, as close to perfection as I’d ever seen, fall for a nobody like me, like the prince fell for Cinderella? Maybe it wasn’t so impossible.

I kept a close eye on Jaden, but he didn’t wave again. He was too involved with the rest of the game, though I couldn’t say what happened. I was too baffled even to try applying the skimpy set of rules Kerry had given me.

When the game ended, our team victorious, I cheered with the rest of the crowd and watched as the players congratulated each other. A few fans ran onto the field to celebrate with the team, as did the cheerleaders. I recognized one of the cheerleaders as the black-haired beauty that had been fawning over Jaden in the food court. She singled him out among the players and threw her arms around him. I watched them hugging, an unjustified feeling of envy creeping into my chest. She must be his girlfriend, beautiful and charming enough that not even Kerry could pry Jaden away from her.

Hope disappeared. Kerry was wrong. Jaden hadn’t waved because he felt an attraction to me. How could he, when he already had a girl ten times prettier than me? No, he was just being nice, graciously acknowledging a front-row fan who kept staring at him.

I stood up and turned away, embarrassed by the tears that were starting to sting my eyes.

“Hey, Rhe, are you okay?” Kerry asked.

Blinking rapidly, I forced a smile. “I’m fine,” I told her. “I’m just tired.”

it was late by the time we got back to our apartment. Reluctantly, I grabbed some homework and took it to the living room, where I might not slip into useless daydreaming as easily. I hadn't counted on Kerry, though.
"Maybe you should glue this thing to your hand," Kerry suggested, tossing my phone at me. "You seem to leave it behind more often than not. Didn't you miss it tonight?"
"No," I answered honestly. "I'm not gluing anything to my hand. I don't need my phone all the time. I refuse to be like the rest of our generation - incapable of surviving without it."
"You would say that," Kerry observed. "No, the practical reason is so people can get in touch with you when they need to."
"No one calls me but my mom, Kerry."
Kerry scoffed dramatically. "I call you." I raised an eyebrow at her. "Well, I text you, anyway," she retorted.
"Yeah, you text me and send me pictures of kittens during the middle of my classes."
"I figure you need something to help keep you awake."
"I happen to enjoy my classes. Uninterrupted."
"Fine. I give up." Kerry sat down on the couch and reached for the remote. "But don't blame me when you graduate and have no idea how the real world works." She turned on her favorite reality show and pointed at the screen. "See? Phones. Every single one of them has one and checks it every ninety seconds."
"I don't think that show counts are the real world, Kerry."
She guffawed. "What? What are you saying?" She looked at me in mock horror. "Next thing I know you'll be saying Santa Claus and Oprah aren't real either!"
"Oprah? Seriously?"
"I knew it!" Kerry shrieked. "You're ruining my life one idol at a time."
I laughed. "Okay, fine. I'll try to be better about my phone. Just lay off the theatrics a bit; I do need to study."
I opened my book and notes while Kerry watched her reality TV. After a minute she said, "Theatrics. What do you think, Rhe? I could be an actress."
I'm not even going to answer that, I thought, concentrating even harder on my book.
"Yeah, that's what I thought, too," she concluded.



I kept myself very busy on Sunday, studying and cleaning the apartment. I managed to keep my thoughts away from Jaden, pushing him to the farthest corners of my mind. I will get past this irrational crush, I reassured myself. Things will go back to normal soon. I finished a paper for my Spanish class. I scrubbed the apartment until it shined, and wore myself out enough that I fell into a dreamless sleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Monday went well enough, at first. I didn’t think of Jaden as I got ready in the morning, or as I finished revising the paper I’d written the day before. I didn’t think of him as I walked to class under dark clouds and wondered again if it was cold enough to snow yet. I only thought of him a little when I ate lunch, and then just because I was thankful I didn’t have to eat in the food court where I might see him again.

But things went wrong in my English Literature class. We’d finished reading Paradise Lost, and were reviewing a few topics before moving on. Today, Dr. Perry seemed especially excited about discussing what he called Classical allusions in Milton’s work. Apparently, there were several instances where Milton referred directly or indirectly to other Classical works.

“As English majors, it’s important for you to understand that all great works draw from the great works that came before them,” Dr. Perry explained. “Milton, for example, favors Classical Greek and Roman works. You may not be familiar with all of them, so I will help by pointing some out today.” I suppressed a smile, pleased with myself for having chosen to study Western Mythology this semester. I might recognize more allusions than he thought.

We read different sections of the text while Dr. Perry pointed out the sources behind Milton’s words. Sure enough, I recognized most of them. When we read the description of Eve discovering her reflection, I almost laughed aloud. It was Narcissus all over again. I remembered my own daydream about gazing into the pool. It had been so vivid. Jaden's eyes in particular had been so realistic.

Without warning, I was sucked into the forest of my dream again. The trees were the same startlingly bright shades of green. I was running, searching for something, someone. The pool of water was missing, but I wasn’t looking for a reflection, I was looking for the man himself.

I run aimlessly through the trees, not lost but not knowing where to go. He has to be here somewhere. He was supposed to be here. Where is he? Why isn’t he coming out to meet me? My breath is growing ragged, not from the exertion of running but from my increasing dread. Something is wrong; it has to be. He wouldn’t just desert me, would he?

I felt a sharp pain in my side and I was back in the classroom. All the vivid green was gone but my heart was hammering and I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins.

The girl next to me had elbowed me in the ribs. She smiled at me helpfully. “I thought you might want to hear this. Class is just about to end.”

“Thanks,” I whispered, unable to remember her name.

I was fully present now, but I still didn’t hear what Dr. Perry was saying. I was trying hard to slow my heart. Why was I suddenly having such vivid daydreams

The bell rang and I slowly put my things into my bag while the other students rushed out of the room. Maybe my blood sugar was low. This could just be my mind’s way of telling me I needed to eat something. I didn’t have the time, or the courage, to go to the food court, but even a snack would help. I'd hit the vending machine before my next class and then I'd be okay.

The halls were so familiar that I wasn't really paying attention until I rounded the corner to the vending machine. What I saw made me stop short.

Jaden was there. He was standing alone at one of the machines. I would have known his profile anywhere, it had been in my thoughts so consistently during the past couple weeks.

Perfect, I thought. Now what? I could just turn around and he probably wouldn't even see me. Maybe that would be best.

But I needed food. And who was he to stop me from getting it? He didn't even know me. I was the one who hadn't stopped thinking about him since I first laid eyes on him. It wasn't like he would hear how hard my heart was pounding. He wouldn't pay enough attention to me to notice me shaking.

You can stand next to him, I assured myself. No big deal. I'd just be quick about it, that's all.

I took a deep breath, braced myself, and stepped up to the machine. What did I want? Oh, who cares, Rhe? I could feel Jaden standing next to me and I had to get away fast. The machine finally grabbed the dollar bill I was holding and started pulling it in. Come on! Couldn't this thing go any faster? The bill stopped halfway in and slid back out. Great. I felt my cheeks burn red. Was he looking at me? I didn't dare peek. Deep breath, Rheanne, just stay calm.

I examined the bill, flipped it around, and tried again. This time the machine took it without complaint. I jabbed two random buttons and prepared myself to grab whatever fell and flee. The metal ring inside the window turned painfully slowly, moving the bag of candy towards the edge as indifferently as possible.

Then it stopped.

The bag never fell. One blasted corner was still stuck under the ring's grip and it hung there, taunting me. That's it. I turned on my heel to storm away. Forget it! I'll just go hungry and lightheaded to class.

"I hate it when that happens." His voice made me stop mid-step; I wavered, and then turned to see Jaden grinning down at me, his brown eyes dancing.

I melted. I was hopelessly, helplessly, putty in his hands. I felt my mouth hanging open, my eyes fixed on his face, blood rushing to my cheeks. Ugh! I must look like a deer in headlights every time he sees me!

"Here, let me get that for you," he offered, stepping in front of me. Grabbing the machine by both sides, he gave it two good shakes and handed me something. "Here's your candy."

Oh, right. I'd needed sugar to help my head. I took the bag from him, careful not to touch his fingers. I didn't think I could handle physical contact with him; his mere presence was more than I seemed able to cope with.

"I'm Jaden, by the way." His hand was still stretched out toward me, palm open. He wanted me to shake his hand?

Instead, I looked down at my feet, shifted my candy bag into both hands, and muttered, "Um, Rheanne."

"Rheanne." When he said my name it sounded like music. "I like it. It's different."

"Thanks." I was blushing even more now. I didn't think I could get any redder. Time to go. "And thanks," I waved the bag of candy in appreciation and turned to leave without looking up at him; I didn't want to freeze up again.

He started walking next to me—no, with me. Uh, oh. Was he going to ask me why I kept staring at him? Would he demand to know what was wrong with me and tell me to keep away from him because he already had enough adoring fans? I wondered what I would say to him. I think I've known you before? I feel like I've spent a hundred lifetimes with you? I'm pretty sure I love you?

Jaden spoke first. "So, you like M&M's?"

What? What kind of question was that? Then I remembered the bag in my hands—looking down, I saw I'd bought M&M's. Duh.

"Yeah, I guess." Sheesh, Rhe, can't you get more than three words out at a time? I tried harder. "I just needed something sweet,” I said. Could he notice my voice shaking? “I get a little light-headed when I’m hungry." Or when I see you, I added silently.

"Well, then, let me buy you lunch."

I stopped walking and looked up at him, shocked. His brown eyes were earnest. Was he seriously asking to spend more time with me? Of all the things he could have asked me, that was the last I would have expected. I opened my mouth to accept, but then remembered my Spanish paper. By now I would already be late. I stood there, open-mouthed, for a full minute, running through excuses and scenarios.

Finally, logic won. "Um, I have class," I explained. "I have a paper due and I really can't skip. Sorry." His eyes darkened a little. Clearly, he wasn't used to being rejected. I really was sorry, though. I didn't think I'd ever get a chance like this again, so I called forth whatever courage I had and asked, "Can I get a rain check?"

Jaden's eyes lit up again and he smiled at me. "Definitely." As if beating too fast wasn't enough, my heart started pounding, threatening to hammer its way right out of my chest.

"I'll let you get to class then,” he said. “I'll see you soon, Rheanne."

Regretfully, I started walking again, the sound of his voice saying my name singing in my ears. I was in a lovesick haze as I walked into class and took my seat. I slipped the bag of M&M's into the pocket of my backpack. Somehow, I didn't think even ten bags would cure my lightheadedness now.


Chapter 3. In Touch


“Happy birthday!” Kerry trilled, dropping an envelope in my lap.

“Kerry, my birthday was last month. We had cake.”

“Yeah, well, call it a belated present.”

“You shouldn’t have,” I said flatly, ripping open the envelope. I pulled out a folded-up piece of paper; it looked like it had been torn out of a magazine. “What is it?” I unfolded it to reveal a close-up of Jaden’s face. My heart jumped and stuck in my throat.

“I thought you might like it,” Kerry smiled. “I have the article that came with it, if you want.”

“Kerry, I don’t want… okay, fine.”

The article detailed Jaden’s football career, boasting what an unbelievable record he had. Apparently he was at CSU on an athletic scholarship. Only a few details about him as a person were included. Whoever wrote the article was clearly only interested in Jaden as an athlete. Still, I kept the picture and the article folded up and tucked away inside one of my notebooks.


The week passed slowly. Jaden wasn’t in the food court on Tuesday or Thursday. I’d been having a hard time focusing on much of anything since Monday, when I’d seen him at the vending machine. My homework was starting to pile up and I knew I’d have to do something about it soon. I hadn’t spent more than five minutes with Jaden and already he was disrupting my study habits.

As Kerry and I left the food court on Thursday, I cast one last glance at the group of football players and made up my mind to get over Jaden.

“I’ll be staying late at the library tonight,” I told Kerry. “I’ve got some studying to do.”

“Okay,” Kerry said, grabbing a newspaper from the stand by the door. “But this weekend we’re going to do something fun.”

“Sure, whatever,” I agreed.



I looked out the library window. It was dark outside; it had probably been that way for a while. So much for getting any studying done.

I sighed heavily, dropping my head into my hands. It wasn’t fair. I just couldn’t seem to get him out of my head. How could I be so completely obsessed with someone I didn’t even know? This wasn’t like me. I’d always been sensible, mature, thought things through; I wasn’t the kind of girl who jumped into things blindly. Why should Jaden have the power to change that?

“It’s Rheanne, right?”

I jerked upright, startled to hear his voice. I was even more surprised to see him standing there in front of me. I must have nodded off. I’d closed my eyes and fallen asleep, allowing my dreams to take over. If this were real, Jaden wouldn’t be smiling at me and saying my name—in the library of all places, the last place I’d expect to run into a football star.

That’s what you get for pulling a late night study session. Wake up, Rheanne. I used all my willpower to try to pull myself out of my dream, but my fantasy Jaden was still there, looking slightly bemused.

I was dreaming, right? I pinched my arm. Wake up, Rhe.

I pinched again. Wake up! Wake up!

“Ouch!” I hissed. I’d pinched too hard.

Jaden raised an eyebrow and pulled one side of his mouth into a lopsided grin.

“Are you pinching yourself?”

Crap! I wasn’t dreaming!

“No,” I denied quickly. His eyebrow lifted even farther. He didn’t believe me. Now what? “I mean, yes,” I amended. But why? Why would I be pinching myself? “I, um… I had an itch. And, you know, you’re not supposed to scratch… because that makes it worse…” I finished lamely.

Stupid, Rheanne, stupid!

“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” Jaden said, smiling. “Mind if I sit down?”

“No,” I croaked.

Jaden dropped his bag on the table and sat down opposite from me. I felt my eyes bugging out of my head. I couldn’t stop staring at him, even though I knew I was reinforcing my deer-in-headlights look. I was just so stunned that he would want to sit with me.

“So,” he said, glancing at the books spread in front of me, “what are you reading?”

I was a little too slow with my response. “Shakespeare.”

“Ah,” he nodded, “good old Romeo and Juliet.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled fuzzily.

Wait, I wasn’t reading Romeo and Juliet. I hastened to correct my mistake. “Actually, no. It’s um, Much Ado… About Nothing…” I trailed off as I saw what he was looking at—a heart I’d drawn at the top of my notes with the letters ‘R & J’ in it. Rheanne and Jaden. When had I done that?

Horrorstruck, I slammed my notebook closed and said, “And Romeo and Juliet! Both. At once. Those were my notes for both.”

I was desperate to distract him. What could I say to get his mind off my embarrassing doodle? “That was some game last Saturday,” I managed.

Jaden grinned and I breathed a sigh of relief. Good save, Rhe, talk about football. He probably loves to talk about himself.

“Yeah, it was. Are you a football fan?”

My sigh of relief caught in my throat. “Uh huh. Yeah.” Please don’t need more of an answer than that. Please!

“Cool.” He seemed pleased. “I saw you at the game last week. What did you think?”

Oh no. Oh no! What was I going to say? What had Kerry said? I racked my brain frantically, trying to remember some of the terms she’d used. “The uh, touchdown you made was really good. And, um, with the pass… and the play… and…” Pathetic.

“Go on,” he said. His eyes were laughing at me.

My face was on fire. My ears felt like they were about to burst into flame. Why did I even open my mouth around Jaden? I only managed to sound like an idiot.

Jaden chuckled. “Big fan, huh?”

I dropped my eyes and stared at the table, wringing my hands together. Please just go away, I wished desperately. Just go away so I can crawl into a hole and die!

 After a minute of awkward silence, Jaden spoke softly. “You know something?” He paused, and I had to look up to see why. His dark eyes were piercing mine. “I like you.”

The room was spinning. I couldn’t breathe. This couldn’t be real. A little voice in my head warned me that this kind of fantasy was definitely unhealthy. How had I come up with such a vivid dream? I dropped my hands to my lap and pinched my leg—hard. I gasped in pain and in shock. I was awake.

 “No, really,” Jaden continued, misinterpreting my gasp. “I like that you don’t know anything about football. That means that we can talk about other stuff. Not many people let me do that here.”

I felt my heart plummet, felt the weight of it hit my stomach. He didn’t like me. He liked my ignorance. He just wanted the chance to talk about something other than football. Well, at least I was something to him.

“So, can I give you a ride home?” Jaden asked, blessedly oblivious to my despair. “I was just on my way out when I saw you here.”

“Okay,” I said slowly, trying to compose myself. I closed the last of my books and began stacking them neatly in my bag. I realized Jaden was watching me closely. In my peripheral vision I could see the corner of his mouth tug upwards, fighting a grin. He was probably noting how meticulously I arranged my books and thinking up some way to mock me for it.

I jerked my bag’s zipper closed and turned to face whatever jibe he’d prepared, but caught myself when I saw the way he was looking at me.

“What?” I asked.

Jaden smiled sheepishly, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“What?” I asked again, more gently.

“Nothing,” he said quietly. “It’s just… I can’t get over how beautiful your eyes are. They’re the most brilliant blue I’ve ever seen.” Was he blushing?

“Here,” he reached for my bag, “let me get that for you.”

I followed him out of the library in silence, still stunned by the unexpected compliment. I couldn’t figure this guy out: one minute he was teasing, the next he was flattering; he was confident and then abruptly flustered; irritating and charming. I didn’t know what to think.

“This is me,” he said, pointing to his car.

“Wow,” I said. “It looks… fast.” It was the best word I could think of to describe it, and even that seemed inadequate.

Jaden just laughed. “Oh, it is.”

In one fluid motion, Jaden opened the passenger side door and threw both our bags behind the seat. He looked at me expectantly.

“Uh, thanks,” I mumbled, sliding into the passenger seat. The movement brought me close enough to him to smell him, and his scent made my heart tremble. It was perfect, mysterious and subtle and entirely different than anything I’d smelled before.

Jaden closed the door. I folded my arms and took a deep breath to steady myself as he walked around the front of the car. You can do this, I told myself. It’s just a ride home. Be rational; it doesn’t mean anything. He’s just being polite. It is, after all, very cold outside.

When got into the driver's seat, I caught another whiff of his scent. My heart beat faster. This was going to be a long ride.

Jaden started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot, following the vague directions I gave him. After a minute or two I noticed there wasn’t any music playing. I looked at the stereo, taking in the interior of the car for the first time. It was nice—the seats were leather, the stereo equipment looked high-tech. Everything was in pristine condition.

“Is this a new car?” I asked. Cars were usually a safe topic with guys. And I couldn’t very well make myself look any more ignorant than I already had.

Jaden’s mouth tugged up again at one corner. I was beginning to recognize that smile. It meant I’d said something he’d found amusing.

“Parts of it are.” He looked at me for a minute and added, “You don’t know much about cars, do you?”

“Not really.” I didn’t feel as bad about this as I had about football. I didn’t know any girls, with the exception of Kerry, who knew much about cars; and Kerry only knew because she’d gone through a phase where she’d wanted to become a mechanic. It had only lasted about three weeks, but she’d learned quite a bit in that time. More than a few guys had been thrilled to share their automotive knowledge with her.

Fortunately, Jaden seemed more willing to talk about his car than about football. “It’s a ’67 Mustang. I bought it when I was in high school and I’ve been fixing it up ever since. I kept the body the same, of course, but I’ve made a few improvements in other places.” He then proceeded to list off some of the changes he’d made. I really didn’t understand most of what he said, but I was relieved that he was carrying the conversation. I only had to insert a question here or there to keep him talking the whole way home.

It was with a mixture of relief and regret that I pointed out my apartment. I was anxious to escape the close confines of the car, which made me blush too frequently and kept my heart racing at an uneven pace, but I was also enjoying being so close to Jaden, hearing his voice, and breathing his incredible scent. I didn’t know when, or if, I would ever be this close to him again. I stalled as long as I could, but eventually had to reach for the door.

It didn’t open. I checked the lock, then tried again.

“Here,” Jaden said, leaning across me. “The handle’s been acting kind of funny lately. You have to wiggle it just right.”

I caught my breath and held it while Jaden fiddled with the handle. His face was mere inches from mine. I could hear him breathing, feel the warmth coming off his skin. I felt like I was going to pass out. I remembered I’d been holding my breath and tried to let it out slowly, knowing he would hear the shaking in it anyway. Why was he taking to so long? I felt dizzy again and reminded myself to inhale. I couldn’t focus on breathing properly when he was this close to me.

Jaden finally got the door open and sat back in his seat. I got out, closed the door, and started wobbling towards the stairs.

I heard another car door open and then Jaden’s voice. “You forgot your backpack.”

I turned around as he strode up to me, bag in hand. I looked up at him, open-mouthed, until he smiled his lopsided grin and pressed the bag into my hands.

“Good night, Rheanne. I’ll call you.”

“Mm-hm,” I mumbled, unsure whether he heard me.

He went back to his car and pulled away while I stumbled up two flights of stairs to my apartment.

“Hey, Rhe,” Kerry trilled as I opened the door. “How’d the studying go?”

She was lounging on the couch in a pair of sweats and a lopsided ponytail, somehow still managing to look gorgeous, with one foot propped up on the coffee table. She didn’t look up from the coat of polish she was carefully brushing onto her toenails.

“Fine,” I lied. I dropped my bag by the door and piled my coat on top of it. Then I sat down next to Kerry and very casually mentioned, “Jaden gave me a ride home.”

Kerry’s jaw dropped, her eyes straining to pop out of her head. Good, I thought, she didn't put him up to it. I still didn’t trust her when it came to Jaden. It would be just like her to try to hook us up.

“Tell me everything!” She cried, hastily screwing the top on her nail polish and muting the TV. She left her foot on the table, but turned her body to face me, giving me her full attention.

“There’s not much to tell,” I dodged.

“Oh, stop it, Rheanne!” Kerry said impatiently. She reached out and grabbed my hand. “Please?” she begged.

I smiled, relenting. “Okay, okay. I was in the library and he came out of nowhere. He even remembered my name.” Kerry let out a squeal of glee and bounced up and down excitedly, waiting for more.

“I tried to talk about football with him,” I confessed.

Tried being the key word, I’m sure.”

I blushed, remembering my miserable attempt at conversation. “Yeah, it was pretty bad. He was laughing at me.”

“I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be rude,” Kerry defended quickly.

“I’m not so sure. He seemed to enjoy making me uncomfortable.”

“Oh, you’re just reading too much into it.”

I smiled mischievously. “Well then, maybe I’d better stop talking right now so I don’t read anything else into it.”

Kerry swatted at me. “Whatever! Just tell me what happened and let me draw my own conclusions.”

“There’s really not much else to tell. He offered to give me a ride home, and we talked about his car a little. That’s pretty much it.”

“Do you think you’ll see him again?”

“I don’t know. He said he’d call me.”

“Oooh! So you gave him your number?”

“I… no. No!" I slapped my forehead. "Agh! I’m so stupid! I didn’t even think of it! Oh, Kerry, I’m an idiot!”

“Hey, don’t worry," she said soothingly. Campus isn’t that big. I’m sure you’ll run into each other again.”

I groaned. “Just promise me you won’t arrange it.”

“Promise-schmomise.”

“Kerry!”

Alright, alright. I won’t get involved.” She turned back to the TV, trying to look innocent. I stared at her until she looked back at me and sighed. “Yes, I promise.”

“Thank you,” I said, standing up and stretching. "I’m beat. I think I’m going to bed.” I headed for my bedroom, knowing I wouldn't actually sleep for hours. I'd replay every moment, every word, motion, and scent over and over again until I made myself believe it all had really happened.



For the next few days, I obsessed over the fact that I hadn’t left a way for Jaden to contact me. He hadn’t even asked. I chewed down all my fingernails and complained to Kerry about it every five minutes. She just took it all in stride, smiling quietly to herself. At least she got her wish - my phone was practically glued to my hand.

The next Thursday, Jaden was finally in the food court again. My stomach did a triple-flip when I saw him, and all I could choke down of my lunch were two bites of pizza.

I kept looking over at Jaden and his group of friends, hoping to see him looking back at me and smiling. But he never did. He seemed entirely unaware of my presence. He did, however, seem very aware of the black-haired cheerleader that was with him again. She laughed a lot—more than was normal, in my opinion—flipped her gorgeous hair around, and maintained a near constant physical contact with him. She made me sick.

“Does Jaden have a girlfriend?” I asked Kerry.

“I dunno,” she shrugged, not looking up from the newspaper she was reading. “I wouldn’t worry about it, though. I don’t think he really takes his girlfriends seriously.”

“Oh,” I said dejectedly.

Kerry finally looked up at me. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she said, although I couldn’t figure out what else she could have meant. “It’s just the girls he usually dates are shallow. He’d take you seriously.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. He was obviously out of my league. I'd be stupid to even imagine he’d consider dating me.

“Have you been reading the paper lately?” Kerry asked in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “This is the third report of a peeping Tom.” She handed me the paper.

“Yeah, but stuff like that happens all the time around campus,” I said, giving the article a cursory glance.

“Not like this. Apparently, this guy, whoever he is, practically stalks his victims.”

“Victims? You talk about it like he’s planning to kill someone,” I observed. “You’ve been watching too many of those crime shows, Kerry.”

She grimaced in acknowledgement. “You’re probably right. I’m sure it’s nothing. Forget I even brought it up.”

We cleaned off our table and left the food court. Jaden didn’t even see us pass his table; I know, I watched.

Later that night, Kerry came out of her room trying to hide a smile. She looked at me intently, then sat down and turned on the TV. For five minutes she pretended to watch some show dance show, sneaking not-so-subtle glances at me every few moments. I laughed to myself. Kerry couldn't keep a secret to save her life.

Knowing she’d spill sooner or later, I asked, “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” she smirked.

“Kerry, just tell me.”

“Why do you assume I have something to tell you?”

“Because you have that look. The one you get when you’re trying to keep a secret.”

She looked at me, back at the TV, then at me again. “Okay, fine,” she said. “I’ve decided to buy a guitar.”

“Oh,” I said. “What’s so secretive about that?”

“I didn’t want to tell you because you always disapprove of my career changes.”

“Career change?”

“Yeah. Turns out, I’m really supposed to be a rock star.”

“Good luck with that,” I said, returning to the book I’d been reading. Kerry still acted suspiciously like she had a secret, but I left it alone.

On Saturday, we went to the Laundromat. I stuffed quarters into machines, loaded my clothes, and sat back on a plastic chair to wait.

Kerry hopped on top of a dryer and fiddled with her cell phone. “Has Jaden called you yet?”

“Of course not,” I said. “He doesn’t have my number, remember?”

“Oh, yeah. I guess I just figured he would have it by now.” Kerry smiled, a little too broadly and just a little smugly.

“Kerry, what did you do?”

“Nothing,” she said innocently.

“Why do I not believe you?”

She smiled at me again. “Probably because you’re paranoid and mistrusting. Really, Rhe, just believe me for once.”

“I can’t. I know you.” When she didn’t say anything else, I begged, “Just tell me you didn’t call Jaden."

“Okay, that’s easy. I didn’t call Jaden.” I studied her face, searching for signs of a lie. She rolled her eyes at me. “I didn’t call him, Rhe. I promise.”

“Fine,” I said resignedly, and closed my eyes, listening to the machines swish and thump.

I called my mom when we got home. Charlotte was technically my stepmother, but since she'd married my dad when I was a baby, she was "Mom" to me. She told me about one of the kids at her school who threw up all over her desk. She was a secretary at an elementary school. I didn't envy her. Personally, I couldn't handle babysitting a bunch of runny-nosed kids all day. That was why I planned to teach at a high school level. But Charlotte's sweet temperament made her the perfect fit for an elementary school.

After we finished talking, I stretched out on my bed to do some reading. I was just getting to the good part of my novel when my phone buzzed. I glanced at it; the number wasn’t one I recognized. Irritated by the disruption, I flipped it open.

“Hello?”

“Is this Rheanne?” a male voice asked.

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“It’s Jaden.” I jolted upright, my heart sprouting butterfly wings. “Sorry,” he said when I didn't respond. “I got your number from Kerry.”

“I knew it!” I hissed.

“Knew what?”

“I told her not to get involved. I’m so sorry. Really, I didn’t think she’d go that far.”

There was a laugh on the other end that made my butterfly heart take flight. “It’s okay, I called her on Thursday and asked her for your number.”

“You… asked?”

“Yeah. I saw you at lunch with her, so I figured she knew you. I didn’t know you were roommates.”

“Yeah, go figure…” I was still too shocked to make coherent conversation.

The silence must have felt awkward to Jaden, too, because he sounded eager to fill it. “She and I had chemistry together, you know. I mean, we had a lab together, last year, for chemistry class, not that, you know… I didn’t mean…”

He sounded so pathetic, struggling for words, I couldn’t help but smile.

“I know what you meant.”

“Oh, good,” he sounded relieved. “So, um, I was wondering if you might want to get together next weekend. You know, do something fun.”

My mouth was gaping again; I was glad he couldn’t see me through the phone. “Uh, sure.”

“Great. What would you like to do?”

“I don’t know.” I couldn’t think of a single thing that I would have in common with Jaden. What could we possibly do together?

“Well, I’ll think of something,” he assured me. “How about Friday night? The game isn't 'til Saturday, so I’ve got the night off. Six o’clock okay?”

“Yeah. Six.”

“Cool. Well, I already know where you live, so I don’t have to call Kerry for that.” I couldn’t tell if he was trying to make a joke. I made a noncommittal grunt just in case. “I guess I’ll see you on Friday,” he finished.

“Yeah, Friday.” I was starting to sound repetitive, and definitely drifting back into two-word sentences. I’d have to work on that before Friday.

“Alright, then. Bye, Rheanne.”

“Bye.” I lowered the phone slowly from my ear, not quite believing what had just happened. Did I have a date with Jaden?


Chapter 4. On Ice


Jaden showed up at my apartment at ten-to-six on Friday night. He wouldn’t tell me where we were going, so I left in the sweater and jeans I’d picked out for class that morning. Kerry waved us cheerfully out the door, promising to have a new guitar to show me when I came home.

The last bit of sunlight disappeared as Jaden drove, tight-lipped, for a full twenty minutes. By the time he pulled into a sparsely populated parking lot, the stars were shining dimly overhead. There was only one building in the lot and it had a neon sign that glowed "Ice Arena." I didn't really believe we were stopping there until Jaden took the keys out of the ignition.

"Ice skating?” I asked dubiously. “I don't think that's a good idea…for me, I mean." I wasn’t exactly clumsy, but my complete lack of athletic ability would probably translate into disaster on ice skates.

Jaden looked over at me and smiled. "Actually, it's a bad idea for me, too. That's kind of the point. I figure it puts us on equal footing."

"If I can even keep my footing," I grumbled.

His laugh made my stomach leap. "Good one. And don't worry, I’m just as likely to fall as you are. We’ll help each other. C'mon, it'll be fun."

"Fine," I sighed, unbuckling my seat belt. "Just promise you won't laugh."

"I'll make no such promise," he said seriously. "I expect us both to be laughing at each other a lot tonight. I figure it's a good way to break the ice." He paused a second and then chuckled when he realized his own pun.

I rolled my eyes. "Ha, ha. Very funny, Jaden."

He held his hands up apologetically. "What can I say? Your superior wit must not have rubbed off on me yet. You need to work harder at that."

We'll just have to see how much rubbing off you'll let me do after you've watched me fall on my butt a hundred times, I thought.

The air inside the building was almost as cold as outside. I was glad I'd worn a sweater. It smelled like some combination of hamburgers, sweat and cotton candy. It was also almost entirely deserted. I wondered if Jaden had picked a spot so far away from campus on purpose. I hoped it was because he was really as bad on ice as he claimed, not because he was embarrassed to be seen with me.

The teenager behind the counter gave us our rental skates. I tried not to think about how many people had worn them or what kind of disgusting things were growing inside them. I just held my breath and stuffed my foot into the skate, making a mental note to scrub my feet extra well when I got home.

Jaden hobbled over to the rink and took a tentative step onto the ice, gripping the top of the wall that ran around the side. He wobbled a bit and then put his other skate onto the ice. With a wide grin, he turned to look back at me and held out his free hand.

"See? No problem. Come on, you can hold on to me."

Judging by the way he was still wobbling, I doubted he would be much help, but I stood up shakily and reached out for his hand.

As soon as our skin touched, I felt a jolt of energy run up the length of my arm. I tingled all over and felt my lungs disappear again. The feeling was oddly pleasant. Helplessly, I knew I would do anything for an excuse to touch Jaden. Even ice-skate.

One foot on the ice was all it took to bring us both crashing down.

I grunted with the impact. "Figures."

Jaden was laughing at me. He'd warned me he would. As always, his laugh made my stomach do flips and my cheeks burn.

He helped me up and we tried again. I was surprised and relieved to find that Jaden fell down almost as often as I did. Every time he started to fall, his expression reminded me perfectly of a cartoon character who'd run off a cliff and only just realized he's standing over nothing but air. Pretty soon I was laughing too.

We made small talk as we skated. It was chunky at best—most of our concentration was on trying to keep our balance—but it got easier after a while.

I learned that Jaden was from Colorado Springs, not far from my home town of Denver. His dad did some kind of contract work for the government, the top secret kind. “Even I don’t know exactly what he does,” Jaden confessed. His mom was an entrepreneur, having successfully started a salon, clothing store, and small coffee shop at home. He had a baby sister who was a senior in high school; I had no doubt she was head cheerleader, gorgeous, and as successful as the rest of his family. I was almost embarrassed to admit that my dad was just a delivery driver and my step-mom an elementary school secretary. Our families couldn’t be more different.

Jaden was studying to get into dental school—not what I’d expected from a football player. He’d changed his major from accounting last year, which surprised me even more.

“Why the change?” I asked.

Jaden shrugged, throwing us off balance for a moment. After we’d regained our footing, he said, “It just seemed selfish, I guess. I mean, I want to help people. I didn’t think becoming an accountant would let me do that.” I looked at him to see if he was joking; he was completely serious. Gorgeous, talented, and charitable? This guy was too good to be true.

I told him I was studying English. Even though I was only a freshman and he'd been at school for two years, between my ambitious class schedule and his change in major, I was almost as close to graduating as he was.

Jaden kept a hold on my hand the whole night, sending tingles up my arm and making my thoughts fuzzy. That didn't help our balance much.

We were making one final loop around the rink when it happened.

Jaden's foot slipped. He let go of the rail and my hand simultaneously so he could make a clean landing on the ice. Without his hand for support, I started to slip, too. In an effort to remain upright, I threw out my arms and spread my feet apart, leaning forward. One of my feet swept behind Jaden's legs, catching him behind the knees and throwing him even more off balance. I managed to stay on my skates, but Jaden fell. Instead of landing on his butt, he hit the ice headfirst.

Crack!

The sound echoed off the walls. I sniggered for just a second before I realized Jaden wasn't laughing.

Slowly, gingerly, his hand moved toward his head. "Ouch."

It was the first time he'd admitted any pain all night. That instantly made me nervous. I dropped down to the ice, not caring about the ache of my bruised knees, as Jaden slowly sat up.

"Jaden, are you okay? Are you hurt? Let me see."

I reached for his head; he'd obviously hit it pretty hard. I touched my fingers lightly to the back of his skull. It felt wet. Jaden winced and sucked a sharp breath through his teeth. I quickly pulled my hand away.

"I think you're bleeding," I said, checking my fingers. Sure enough, his blood was staining my fingertips.

I'd never had a problem with blood. This was different. I felt suddenly sick. Everything looked like it was underwater. My thoughts were all muddled. All I could see was Jaden's blood, a vivid crimson, through the haze.

Oh God! What have I done?

My hands are covered in blood. Stained. Shaking.

Someone is screaming. That seems appropriate. But who is it?

My eyes search the room frantically. The cries stop. No one is here. No one except me and the body lying bleeding before me. The screams must have been coming from me.

Keep quiet! I tell myself. Figure out what just happened.

I had been alone. It was night. Pitch black. Joon Young had left for the city. He was needed there. I needed him here, but that hadn't mattered. The protection of the city came first. So I had been left behind, alone and defenseless. I had nothing but Joon Young's spare blade to protect me. As if an eight-inch dagger would be much use against the dangers lurking outside. I had heard the stories, seen the deaths—the marauders were nothing to take lightly.

I had secured the house as best I could. I left no light burning after sunset so I would not attract attention. The danger where we lived was greater than anywhere else. We were so far from the sheltering walls of the city. Why they needed the additional protection of our best fighters, I could not understand. But when they called, Joon Young went. He’d become a warrior to protect people, and he did, always putting duty before love, before me.

Being the soldier that he was, he had taught me the basics of wielding a blade. I'd never had any reason to use that knowledge, and I hoped tonight would not be the exception.

I retired to bed early. There seemed little else to do. With no light, I could not work. Nor could I relax or close my eyes; fear gripped me too tightly for sleep.

And so I waited, crammed into the corner where our bed met the wall, listening anxiously for any abnormal noises. Several times I thought I heard something approach the house. In those moments I breathed shallowly, silently, praying that whatever or whoever it was would not enter. Each time the noises led to nothing I felt easier. The night would pass. Joon Young would return. All would be well.

But then the noises came too close. There was no mistaking that they were footsteps. Whoever approached the house was not attempting stealth. Did they think the residents were asleep? Or had they watched the house, seen no lights, and decided it must be abandoned? It was not uncommon for people to desert their homes for the security of the city during times of war. Naturally, those homes were looted. But what would the rebels do if they found someone inside?

I know what they will do. It is kill or be killed.

I feel my hands trembling and grip the handle of the blade tighter. I will be ready. I will not go down without a fight. I will live to see Joon Young again. And if living that long means I have to kill, then that is what I will do.

I can hear the footsteps just outside the door now. Heavy steps. It sounds like a man. Only one man. That is good.

I tiptoe to the wall beside the door and crouch low, the chill of the wood on my bare feet. He will look over my head when he first enters.

I stop breathing. A grunt and some shuffling of weight—he doesn't expect me to be here. He is not on guard. Surprise will be my only advantage.

My muscles tense, ready to spring. Mentally, I steel myself. I will put all my strength into the first strike, a quick upward thrust. Aimed properly, the knife might puncture some organs. If nothing else, it should wound the intruder enough to slow him down. Then, depending on his size, I will finish him or flee.

I hear his hand on the door, the scrape of the wood against the floor. Moonlight streams through the first crack and I see his silhouette. He cannot see me.

The door widens, he steps across the threshold. I make my move.

I use my legs to propel myself into him, knife first. It is sharp; it slides in easily. I never knew flesh was so soft. My fist is pressed against his gut. Hot blood gushes onto my hand and arm, spilling to the floor. It is a deep cut. Good.

I jump back in case he is able to retaliate, but with a groan he slumps to his knees and falls forward to the floor. I don't even think to wonder if he is faking.

I start breathing again, my heart is pounding furiously. He isn't dead yet, but he will be soon.

The man rolls over and in the light from the open door I see his face.

Joon Young!

"Oh, my God, my God!" I collapse on the floor, the gory dagger slipping from my hand. I've killed him!

No, he isn't dead yet. I scramble to his side. "Joon Young! Joon Young!"

Oh God! What have I done? My hands are covered in blood. Someone is screaming. I look around to see who it is, but it's just me. Just me and Joon Young.

"Joon Young! Joon Young!" I cannot stop saying his name. He looks up at me and I can see my horrified reflection in his eyes.

I wrap my arms around his shoulders and pull him onto my lap. He is heavy. Limp already.

His hand, covered in blood from clutching at his wound, reaches up for my face. I help him lift it to my cheek. I can hardly see him through my tears.

He tries to speak but when he opens his mouth only blood spills out. He is choking on it. Gagging. Coughing.

I don't know what to do. My hands flutter uselessly over him. "What do I do? Joon Young, help me!"

He will know what to do. He always keeps calm, thinks practically in terrifying situations. That is why he is such a good soldier. The best.

And I've killed him.

A hysterical laugh escapes my lips. The empire's best warrior killed by a housewife!

My laughing turns into sobs that rack my body. I've lost control of myself. I look down at Joon Young. He is not there. His soul has left his eyes—I know because they no longer draw me in, hold me captive. What is his body without the soul I love? Dead. Empty.

"Come back to me! Joon Young! Don't die! Please don't leave me! I need you!" My shrieks pierce the night. I don't care if someone hears. Let them find me. Let them kill me, too.

Maybe if I cry loudly enough, his soul will hear me. Maybe he will return to me. The love that binds us together is stronger than death. If only I can make him come back.

"Don’t' die! Don't die! Please!"

"Don't die, don't die!" My voice was too loud. People were staring.

"Calm down, Rheanne!" Jaden was looking at me, clearly more worried about me than himself. "No one is dying. I just hit my head, that's all. I'm okay, really. Head wounds just bleed more than others."

He put his arms around me and I realized I was shaking. "Shhh! It's okay. I promise," he whispered into my hair. And even though I knew he was right, I couldn't shake the vision of Joon Young’s lifeless eyes. I had been there. I had killed him.

Snap out of it, Rheanne! It wasn't real. It couldn’t be. But the moment kept replaying itself in my mind and I couldn’t make my emotions agree with what my mind told me. 



I was relieved when we finally left the hospital. I never liked hospitals. They seemed so depressing, full of sick people.

Jaden had driven us to the ER himself, insisting he was in better shape than me. I was still too shaken to complain. He’d only needed three stitches but I’d had a hard time watching. The looks Jaden and the doctor kept giving me certainly hadn’t helped.

The doctor was a friendly woman with caring eyes. She looked at me with a little too much concern and her nurse kept asking if I wanted to leave the room. “Does the sight of blood bother you, honey?” Ha! It does now! Who wouldn’t be bothered by the sight of their lover’s blood pouring out over their own hands?

But it wasn’t real. It wasn’t! I had no idea what it was, but it was not real. An overreaction. A panic attack. A result of my excessive infatuation with Jaden. I didn’t know. I was trying hard not to think about it.

Jaden’s concern was even more embarrassing. He practically made me lie down on the hospital bed, rather than using it himself. He even tried to have the doctor prescribe me a drug of some kind to relieve my anxiety.

“I’m fine!” I argued. “Really. I’m sorry I freaked out on you.”

He wouldn’t let it go though. He wouldn’t let me go, either, like he thought I needed help walking. By the time we got to the parking lot I’d had enough.

“Jeez, Jaden! I’m not going to pass out!” I tried to pull my arm away from him, but failed.

He gave me a look that clearly said he didn’t believe me. “Well, if you won’t get anything here, at least let me buy you a drink or something.”

He helped me into the passenger seat of his car. “I don’t drink.” I said stubbornly before he closed the door. When he got in the driver’s seat, I felt bad about the tone I’d used and tried to soften it by adding, “I’m not old enough, anyway.”

Jaden looked at me and laughed, startling me out of my dark thoughts. I loved his laugh. It always seemed so unrestrained, so genuine. Why exactly was I frustrated with him? I couldn’t seem to remember when he looked at me like that.

“I wasn’t talking about an alcoholic drink, Rhe. I know you’re underage.”

“What? How?” I’d never told him my age. “And don’t call me Rhe.”

“Why not? It’s your nickname, isn’t it?”

“I don’t like it. And you didn’t answer my question. How do you know I’m underage? I don’t look that young, do I?”

He rolled his eyes and started the engine. “Put on your seat belt.”

I obeyed, grumbling. “You’re avoiding the question.”

“Maybe.”

I waited. He didn’t say anything more. Well, fine. He didn’t want to talk about it? Then I didn’t have anything to say either. I folded my arms and stared out the window, watching headlights pass.

“You’re cute when you pout, you know.” I didn’t look at Jaden, but I could hear the smile in his voice.

“I’m not pouting,” I said, pulling in my lower lip. Sulking maybe, but not pouting.

After a couple more minutes, Jaden let out a huge sigh. “Fine, I give in.”

Seriously? It was that easy? This guy is a sucker for the silent treatment. Or maybe he just feels bad about the incident on the ice.

I turned and looked expectantly at Jaden. He didn’t return my look, which was probably good since he was driving, but I wished I could see what was going on in those deep eyes of his. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, as if he kept trying to say something but changing his mind. His grip on the steering wheel tightened. He looked… awkward.

“Rheanne, I… I kind of… I asked Kerry about you,” he finally blurted out. It was too dark to tell, but I could have sworn he was blushing about it.

I was glad then that he was staring so intently at the road or he would have seen me stifle a laugh. I figured it probably wouldn’t be good to laugh at something that had him so flustered. I didn’t know why he should be embarrassed, though.

I told him that then, adding, “Really, Jaden, it’s not a big deal. I would have done the same thing.”

He still looked uncomfortable. I saw his eyes dart in my direction a few times before he said, “I might have talked to a few other people, too.”

What? Who? I racked my brain, trying to think of acquaintances we had in common. I could only think of one—Kerry.

“I wanted to talk to more than just Kerry.” Jaden explained. “I mean, she’s great and all, but she’s a little…”

“Crazy?”

“I was going to say biased.”

“Oh. Who’d you ask, then?” I racked my brain again, trying to think of who else he could have asked for information on me. He’d seen me with Kerry, and he already knew her, so she was a given. But beyond that… I didn’t really have any regular friends. Kerry and I were so close in part because I was the only girl I knew who didn’t feel threatened by her. She had bunches of good-weather friends and I was kind of a loner, so we’d just become each other’s main connection. I knew people in classes that I talked to and occasionally studied with, but Jaden wasn’t in any of my classes. There was no one else to question.

“Who?” I asked again, perplexed.

“It doesn’t really matter.”

“It does to me! What if they said something bad about me?”

“No one said anything bad about you. Trust me, if I’d heard something I didn’t like, we wouldn’t be out on this date. You don’t have to worry. Where do you want to go?”

“What?” I asked, confused by his question.

“For a drink.”

“Oh.” I thought a moment. I’d forgotten he wanted to take me somewhere else. “I don’t care.”

“Just pick somewhere.”

“I’ll pick if you tell me who you talked to.” It was a stupid game, but it was worth a shot. Jaden just pressed his lips together and raised an eyebrow at me. I demonstrated my determination by folding my arms again and stubbornly lifting my chin to meet his gaze.

His mouth twitched up at one corner. “We’re going to Jamba Juice,” he said, looking at the road again.

“Fine,” I said smugly. I’d won that stare-down. I just wasn’t sure what I’d won.

A cold drink and a change in conversation, as it turned out. We reverted to safe small talk about campus and classes as we drank. Jaden lent me his jacket when I started to shiver, and his scent kept me in a happy place all the way home.

Jaden didn’t just walk me to my door but through it, planting me firmly on the couch. Kerry was too busy tuning her new guitar—hot pink like her hair—to notice how obnoxiously attentive Jaden was being.

“Did you guys have fun?” she asked absentmindedly.

“Well—“ Jaden started.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she cut him off, “Rhe will tell me all the details later.” She winked conspiratorially at me. I really wished she’d have let Jaden give his assessment of the evening because I was sure he wouldn't have called it ‘fun.’

Jaden knelt in front of me and squeezed my hand. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Kerry looked up from her guitar. “Why? What hap—“ I silenced her with a look.

“I’m fine. Really.”

Concern still darkened Jaden’s eyes, but he let it go. “Well, some of the guys are throwing a party next weekend to celebrate the end of the season. Do you want to come?”

I couldn’t tell if he was asking me on another date, or just being politely social.

“To a football party?” I asked.

“Yeah. Well, just a party. With some football players. But would you go? With me?”

It sounded like another date. Unwillingly I started my deer-in-headlights routine, but Kerry came to my rescue.

“You should go, Rhe. Get to know Jaden’s friends.”

She nodded helpfully at Jaden who picked up on her tactic. “Please? Just say yes.”

“Y-yes,” I stammered.

“Great,” Jaden said, standing up to leave. “I’ll call you.”

“Wait!” I spoke too loudly and Jaden quickly knelt in front of me again, all attentiveness. “Don’t forget your jacket,” I breathed, torn between flattery and annoyance at his reaction.

Jaden just smiled. “Keep it. You can give it back to me on Sunday, at the party. Trust me, it’ll be fun.”

He left then, and I fell over on the couch, burying my face in the intoxicating scent of his jacket.

Kerry hopped over and settled herself at my feet. “Tell me everything!”

I obliged her, reliving every second of the night. I only omitted the part where I saw myself killing someone. Instead, I said I freaked out about the blood. It wasn’t exactly a lie.

Everything got more exciting in the retelling—Jaden’s eyes, his laugh, his jokes, his sweet concern over me, and who could forget his smell? By the time we finished talking I was so giddy I felt like I could fly. He’d asked me on a second date. Even if it was only a pity date, making up for how badly this one had ended, it was still a date with Jaden.

I had only a fleeting thought for Joon Young as I drifted into sleep. I could deal with that whole mess another time.