Screw it. I may not be able to push the button for the whole book now, but I can give you a sneak peek of the first chapter of Guardians! Wahhoooo! Hopefully this tides me over until the publish date!
A beginning is a chance to become exactly whom you want to be no matter the past you left behind. A beginning is a fresh start, a blank page ready to be written on without pretenses. This beginning was Riley’s chance to leave everything she knew, everything anyone ever thought of her or whispered behind her back, behind.
Riley parked her car in front of the largest building on campus. The Muse dormitory at Bradford University stood thirteen stories high with a large clock facing the grounds. As she stepped out of her Toyota, the clock began tolling for noon. She stared up at the large brick building towering over her. The lower four levels spanned horizontally along the corner edge of the campus. The other nine floors rose high and centered over the lower four.
The campus was beautiful, covered in trees with color changing leaves and crisply cut green grass. The all brick buildings holding the classrooms and dormitories were straight from the Victorian era, merging purpose and everyday life into their structure and intricate window design. The Muse was the odd ball. It was also covered in bricks and designed with mix purpose, but its architecture seemed more industrial than Victorian, turning students into graduates like a revolving door.
The sleepy town of Bradford, Virginia surrounded the babbling New River as it flowed along the edge of the city limits. The college life was contained within an acute triangle of space between Main Street, Tyler Avenue, and Jefferson Street. Outside of the triangle lay beautiful, old houses, small shops and eateries, and endless outdoor adventures and sports. Apparently, there was a Walmart and Kroger’s across the river, but as far as chain stores went, that was as extravagant as it got.
It was the best chance at the beginning Riley had been hoping for, and it was perfect. She had applied to so many colleges as far away from her hometown as she could. When Bradford sent her an acceptance letter, she immediately fell in love with the school, not just for its outstanding programs and beautiful campus, but for the escape they were offering from the life she had always known.
People streamed to and from the building; parents dropping off their kids with tearful goodbyes; returning students discussing their summers; resident assistances, or RAs, directing the flow of traffic with big smiles and their “How can I help you?” t-shirts. Everyone seemed in a rush to get where they were going with large suitcases and clear plastic storage containers, but Riley relished in the moment as the clock struck for the twelfth time.
It was in this brief instant that to everyone around her, she was no one. She was just another face in the crowd. She was just another student trying to find her dorm room while lugging way too much baggage. In this moment, before she introduced herself to anyone, before she attempted to make connections with her fellow classmates, and for the first time in her life, she was invisible.
Riley watched as more students scurried around and giggled when someone’s cart of necessities tipped over. The force of the impact exploded an overstuffed bag and released undergarments all over the front steps of the dorm. The cart driver was a well-endowed platinum blonde, so every male RA stepped up to help her collect her belongings. It became a game to see who among them could pick up the most panties as the guys snickered and winked at the unfazed blonde.
Riley shook her head. If that would have been her first impression, she would have been mortified and got back in her car to head home, but the girl strolled towards the building with a handful of lace underwear like nothing ever happened.
Riley envied the girl’s confidence. In high school, she had always been the quiet girl everyone avoided and whispered about, so her boldness ended at the natural red color of her hair. Her green eyes were illuminated by her pale skin, and she had always thought her lips were too thin and red. At five-foot-tall, she had tried to hide amongst her peers in grade school, but no matter what she did, they had always seen her as a freak.
A horn honked behind her, and someone shouted out a window. “Coming or going, sweetheart?”
Riley jumped. She hadn’t even turned her car off when she pulled into the dorm parking lot.
“Staying,” she replied as she ducked her head into her car and pulled the keys out of the ignition. The driver pulled away and made another circle around the lot.
Riley took a deep breath and repeated the mantra she had been chanting since she left her home in Alexandria: “New year, new town, new school, new people, new me.”
“Excuse me,” Riley said to an RA. “Where do I get one of those carts?”
The girl looked up from her clipboard with a plastered smile tight on her lips, clearly having answered the exact same question multiple times already today. “Right along the walkway here is a row of them.”
Riley’s gaze followed to where the RA pointed. “OK, thanks.”
Before Riley could take a step towards the carts, the RA sidestepped in front of her. “Do you need any assistance loading the cart?”
“No, thanks,” Riley answered, attempting to step around the wide-eyed girl, but the RA stepped in front of her again.
“I see that you are alone. Parents couldn’t make it?”
Riley felt a bubble of all too familiar anxiety rise in her chest. She tampered it down as she pasted her own practiced smile to her face. “Nope, they had to work.”
The smile must have put the girl at ease as her arms uncrossed from around her clipboard, and her eyes became a bit less probing. “Mine had to work on my first move-in day as well. If there is anything I can do to make today easier, please let me know. The first day is always the hardest.”
“Will do,” Riley lied, scurrying towards the carts.
As she pushed the squeaky metal flatbed towards her car, she wondered what her parents were actually doing right now. As a kid, she had always fanaticized about them. Her young mind had made them into a king and queen facing adversaries, or fairies with very important quests, which is why they had to leave her.
But that was the truth of it.
Her parents had left her with her Aunt when she was just a baby. No explanations, no reasons, no way to get in contact. Just gone. The only thing Riley had of them was an old and wrinkled picture, but it was a tiny piece of the people she had longed for the most as a child. She couldn’t remember how many nights she had spent hugging that tiny picture, wishing for them to come and take her with them to their kingdom or on their journey, but they never came.
She couldn’t even find it in herself to blame them for leaving. What those early days must have been like with someone like her. They were probably terrified of her and the things she saw. It was no wonder they left.
It had been her and her Aunt Lara for as long as Riley could remember, and although her Aunt had done everything she could to raise her well, there was a hole in Riley’s heart, never to be filled with a parents love and affection.
Riley shook her head, scolding herself. She had made herself promise the entire four-hour drive to Bradford that she wouldn’t dwell in the past.
The past was gone, and today was about beginnings.
Riley glued another smile to her face and continued loading the cart.
Today was going to be a happy day. No matter what.
Then Riley felt it.
A dark, swirling sensation weighed down on her chest as goose-bumps rose on her skin despite the ninety degree weather. Her breath felt labored, and her hands shook the cart handle. She closed her eyes as they stung with tears and her stomach dropped into her pelvis.
No! Not here!
Riley’s head felt heavy as she slumped against her car, trying her hardest to open her eyes again, but they wouldn’t cooperate. She felt something grab hold of her body like a vice squeezing her mid. She clamped her eyes shut, placing her hands over her face, determined to block it all from her mind.
She had hoped she had left all this behind in Alexandria.
How could it have followed her here?
She hadn’t even done anything to trigger it!
A deep voice full of malice rumbled in her ear a language she had never been able to understand, but the message was still clear. The voice grew louder with each of her staggered breaths. The hold around her middle became crushing. She gasped for air, begged for the episode to end, but the voice and the strength of its hold on her, only grew.
A bright light began to shine through her eyelids as warm hands grasped her shoulders, spreading their fever through her frigid veins.
“Are you alright?” The silky voice said as random shapes were drawn on her skin.
The darkness, the gravelly voice, the pain, all receded as the light grew stronger, and the warmth enveloped her in serene silence. Her breathing calmed, and her eyes slowly opened. The sun blinded her for a moment with sudden flashes of light before her eyes readjusted, but then dark hair, blue eyes, and a beautifully white smile met her stare.
“Hey, you OK?” the guy with the amazing smile asked again.
As Riley’s eyes focused, she could make out the dimples on his cheeks, the stubble on his chin and jawline, and the warm honey tone of his skin. The guy was gorgeous, and he was touching her.
“Do you need to sit down?” Concern washed over his features.
Riley shook her head, but with one jerky movement, thought better of it. She always felt like she was going to get sick after an episode as colors continued to zoom in and out of her peripherals.
“N-no,” Riley stammered, trying to ground herself again. “No, I’m fine. I just need a second.”
The guy’s smile was back in place as he released his hold and leaned against the car behind him. “You sure? You don’t look so good.”
Riley’s head began to clear, and her stomach returned to its rightful position. She stood straight and took a deep, lung filling breath. The memory of the voice and strange language was already disappearing, leaving only the distinct feeling of pain behind, but that was how they all ended. Even though this episode had felt stronger than it ever had before, it went away a lot faster than the usual.
Maybe that was a good sign. Maybe this move was what she needed after all.
“I’m fine,” Riley responded, trying to convince him or herself, she wasn’t sure.
The gorgeous guy quirked his eyebrow at her, clearly not convinced, but Riley could only concentrate on how striking his features were.
Riley tried again, straightening her spine. “Seriously, I’m OK. Thank you.”
Riley looked up to him, following the sound of his voice as her eyes traveled higher and higher. She was just now realizing how tall and muscular he was. Definitely near the six foot mark. She stared up at him as his brighter than the summer sky eyes searched her face.
“I promise,” Riley said, trying to smile as warmly back.
The guy’s smile stretched wider as his dimples dipped deep into his cheeks, and he held out his hand. “I’m Reymend, but everyone just calls me Rey.”
“Riley,” she responded, taking his hand in hers.
A pulse shot through her body as hot and strong as electricity. A whirlwind of images flashed through her mind stronger than before, bright colors and assorted shapes, but they were all too abstract to understand before they disappeared, and Riley was staring back at Rey.
“First year?” Rey asked, his smile turning into more of a smirk as he reluctantly released her hand. He crossed his muscular arms over his chest displaying his firm build which was easily visible through his thin V-neck t-shirt. With his right leg crossed over his left, his shorts, sneakers, and sunglasses all made him look like a model straight out of a magazine.
“Yeah,” she answered, trying to make sense of what had just coursed through her mind and body.
“I’m a junior. I have an apartment on light side.”
“Is that a street name?” Riley asked, confused.
Rey chuckled. “No, it’s the side of campus. One side has a lot of streetlights; the other, not so much.”
“Oh,” was all Riley offered. She probably sounded like an idiot to the upperclassman. One hell of a way to make a first impression.
“Muse is your dorm?”
“Yeah, I’m on the thirteenth floor.”
“Are you nervous?” Rey asked quirking an eyebrow again.
“No,” Riley answered quickly. Too quickly.
Rey snickered. “All freshies are when they find out they are up there, but like I always say, Nostradamus hasn’t been right yet.”
“Nostradamus? The clairvoyant who predicted someone would die on the thirteenth floor in a building that sat next to a river that flows backwards?” Rey said in an attempt at a spooky voice.
He had no idea.
“You’re joking?” Riley choked.
“Nope. Real dude who also predicted the world was going to end in like 2012 or something, so again, he has yet to be right.”
But that was before I came! Riley screamed in her mind.
She thought she had researched the school so well! How could she have missed that prediction?
“Are you telling the truth, or are you just messing with me because I’m a freshman?”
“I promise. Look it up tonight.” Rey’s smile faded as Riley tried to hide her panic. “Better yet, don’t. It’s just a prediction made by an old man hundreds of years ago. Besides, there’s another building in Egypt that fits the description as well.”
Riley shook her head as she tried to calm herself. There’s another one in Egypt. It doesn’t mean it will be here. It’s been hundreds of years.
Then you came, a voice growled in her ear.
Riley felt her heart skip a beat, but refused to show it. She was so used to it all by now that even though she was a little rattled by Rey’s story, she still had control. At least for the moment. She had to get to her dorm. She just needed a minute to think and calm herself.
“I’ve got to go.”
Rey shook his head, his smile gone and his eyes downcast. “Yeah, guess that was a sucky opener.”
Riley stopped mid-step on her way to her cart. He had actually wanted to talk to her even after her episode. He wasn’t running scared or calling her names. He had actually approached her in the midst of it all.
Riley turned towards him again. She had never in her life had a chance to flirt with a guy, so if that was what he had been trying to do then no wonder he had failed. He was trying with someone who was completely oblivious to romance.
“That was a line?”
Rey snapped his attention back toward her and laughed. “I guess a bad attempt at one, yeah.”
It was the dumbest question anyone in the world could have asked at that moment, but she needed to know. What if it happened again? She had to understand, so that she was ready next time some unknowing guy tried to come on to her, if that in fact was what Rey was doing.
“Seemed like you could use a friend.”
Riley’s heart melted in her chest. “I could definitely use one of those.”
Rey’s smile stretched wide, and the full weight of its sincerity filled Riley’s veins with sweet delight.
“How about we start over? Hi, I’m Rey. Can I help you with your stuff?”
Riley giggled a soft sound she had never heard from her mouth before. She actually felt at ease with someone other than her Aunt for once in her life.
“Sure,” she practically sang as she tossed a plastic space bag at his chest.
He reached out and effortlessly caught the bag of squished bedding with a playful smile turning the corners of his lips.
“So where are you from?” Rey asked, tucking the bag in between her suitcases on the cart.
“Huh, why didn’t you go to UMD? I hear that is a really great school.” But not far away enough from Alexandria, Riley thought.
“It is, but I wanted to get out of Maryland, try someplace completely different than the city.”
Riley smiled as she handed off another box. “I know exactly what you mean.”
Rey smiled back. “What’s your major?”
“Undecided. I was hoping after a semester or two, something would intrigue me.”
Rey laughed. “Typical freshman answer.”
Riley shot him a sideways glance as she dropped a heavy box in his arms. “Well, what’s yours?”
The weight of the box didn’t even phase him. “Education. I’m very comfortable in front of a crowd, and like breaking things down for people to understand them better.”
“That definitely isn’t the typical answer of someone wanting to become a teacher. Most of the time people say they like kids, or want to mold the future generations,” Riley scoffed. It always sounded like a desire for control to her.
“Well, I’m hoping to teach high school geometry, so they aren’t really kids by then, and their minds are very independent around that age.”
Rey smiled up at her as he placed the final box on the cart. “Yeah. Crazy, I know. All those hormones and rebellious tendencies. Just call me a glutton for punishment.”
Riley laughed and followed behind Rey as he pushed the cart towards the dorm. Rey steered it around the crowd of parents and students gathered at the entrance to the building and up the walkway leading into a large lobby with an elevator bay in its center.
“Downstairs is a dining hall, but they are rarely open, and the food is actually kind of pricey if you are on the meal plan. Everyone typically eats at Dalton or Bonnie on campus,” Rey offered as they waited for one of the four elevators to open.
“I have no idea what the Dalton or Bonnie are, but if you say so,” Riley smiled. She could listen to Rey’s voice all day and never be bored.
“Well, once we’re done unloading your cart, I could give you a tour,” Rey smiled back, hope clear in his eyes.
Riley felt her heart lift, but falter for the briefest of seconds. Could she allow herself to become involved with someone after everything that happened in the past? If she were to have another episode, would he leave like all the rest? Could she handle that pain again?
“If you want,” Rey added as quickly as the overflow of thoughts bombarded her mind.
Riley smiled, but it felt forced compared to the one she held all of five minutes ago. Her heartbeat quickened and pounded against her chest. Her body felt as if it were thrusted into an ice bath as she shivered and hugged her mid.
Don’t trigger it. Don’t trigger it!
A warmth blossomed within her chest, expelling all of her anxiety and nurturing her heart into a steady rhythm. This is why she came here, the warmth coaxed, enveloping her body with steady heat. A fresh start, a chance at real friends and real experiences.
A real life.
Riley took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, uncrossing her arms in front of her. She could do this. She had to do this.
“That sounds great,” she smiled, feeling the uneasiness melt from her body.