If you read Guardians, check out this sneak peek of the entire first chapter of Birthright! The first and second book of the Touched by Light series are ramping up to the finale of Riley and Rey’s story. Don’t miss out on the conclusion to their story in the world of Light and darkness. Grab your copy today!
“Really, Aunt Lara. I’m fine,” Riley tried to assure her for the fiftieth time today.
Her Aunt had surprised her one afternoon while she was studying in her dorm room and had another episode. From the moment her makeshift parent had found her in the midst of the darkness, she had been treating her like a child, monitoring her every move.
For over a week now, the only solace Riley found was in her freshman classes at Bradford University, but that wasn’t without a fight. The first round of arguments came about after her Aunt tried to escort her to class. The second broke out when she had actually tried to sit at a desk right next to her! It was mortifying! Riley was finally able to convince her Aunt during the third round that her episodes had never occurred during class, but the war was far from over.
“You should get back home to Alexandria. I think it’s under control now.”
Aunt Lara smiled sweetly as she put another load of laundry away. “It’s under control because I’m here, lamb. If I leave, I would guarantee that you would have another episode because you aren’t taking very good care of yourself. Too much stress, too much to manage!”
Riley sighed at the use of her nickname. The endearment used to fill her with tranquility, but now, it only made what her Aunt was saying seem that much more condescending. Her life may have been riddled with the seizure like episodes during her grade school years, but it had never impacted her life in such a way that she couldn’t function. Not have friends or relationships, sure, but her grades, education, hygiene, and nutrition never suffered.
As her Aunt stacked another pile of clothes in the armoire, Riley shook her head. She and her reassigned roommate Elisha were going to have clean clothes for the rest of the term.
“I’ll do better now. I just overwhelmed myself with the whole experience the first few months, but I promise I’ll take it easier. I’ll even create a schedule to better manage my time.”
“Give it another week or so, and we’ll talk about it then,” Aunt Lara said offhandedly. “Until then-”
“Another week or so?” Riley exasperated. “What are you going to do here for that long?”
“Take care of you, of course. It’s what I’ve done for almost nineteen years now,” Aunt Lara responded, offended.
Riley tried to keep her cool. If she lost her temper, she would only be making her Aunt’s point.
“Aunt Lara, that’s not going to work.”
“What isn’t?” Her Aunt was playing innocent, but Riley could see right through it.
“You can’t stay here for ‘another week or so’.”
Her Aunt seemed perturbed. “Then you’re coming home with me.”
Riley felt the broken record skip back to the beginning again. “No, I’m not. I’m staying here, and you’re going home.”
“Riley, this isn’t good for you,” her Aunt started the spiel again, but Riley held up her hand, stopping her.
“Before you say anything else, I need you to understand that I am trying to build a life here. A life different from the one I had in Alexandria that consists of more than being cooped up in our house without anyone to talk to besides you, and I mean that as lovingly as I can. You have taken such great care of me my entire life, and I thank you, but I want to be able to experience life on my own, and I can do that here.
“This is where I am going to make a life for myself, but I can’t do that if you are literally standing right next to me every moment of every day. I understand your concerns about my episodes, but how else can I learn to manage them if you won’t let me be on my own? How else can I figure out my triggers, or how to stop them all together if you are consistently with me?
“I can do this, Aunt Lara. These first few months contradict that, but I promise you I can because I want this. I want this to work, so it will, but you have to go home.”
Riley could see the wheels turning in her Aunt’s head, but for the first time since her arrival, Riley believed she might have gotten something through to her. She knew her Aunt’s concerns weren’t without merit, but she had to learn how to cope with her episodes if she ever wanted a life of her own.
There was no way she was going to be able to go on a date with Michael if her Aunt insisted on escorting them. Talk about humiliation!
Aunt Lara sighed sadly as she smoothed her long gray streaked black hair back from her face. “OK but give me through the weekend. If you haven’t had another episode by Sunday then I will go back home, but if you do, we add a week.”
Riley felt her stomach flop at the idea of her Aunt staying any longer than the rest of the day, but she didn’t want to hurt her any more than she already had. She was sure her Aunt had to be lonely now that she was living by herself too, so maybe her being in Bradford wasn’t just for Riley’s benefit.
“Will you promise to back off a bit? Just to give me some breathing room? I mean, escorting me to class seems a bit much.”
Her Aunt seemed to weigh the request. “Case by case basis?”
Riley took a deep breath and exhaled. This was as good as she was going to get. “Deal.”
Her Aunt smiled. “Let’s get you something to eat. You seem a little peaked.”
Riley shook her head. It was going to be a long five days.
As Riley and her Aunt made their way to Dalton, Elisha skipped down the steps from the library.
“Hey, Elisha!” Riley called, waving.
Elisha waved back and waited for them on the sidewalk. “Where are you headed?”
“Dalton Café for dinner. Want to join?” Riley asked, hoping for the distraction.
“Thanks, but I’m meeting Jake at Bonnie for sushi. I’ll catch up with you later,” Elisha said, already heading toward the far end of the campus.
She hadn’t seen much of her friend since the day before her Aunt had arrived. At the beginning of the term, they had spent practically every day and night together in Elisha’s dorm room since Riley’s real roommate was a terror while Elisha’s had never bothered to move in.
When Riley met Michael, her friendship with Elisha had been the steady constant in the exciting whirlwind of romance with the fraternity brother of Pi Kappa Phi. They would recap the events of her date and giggle at the cute things Michael had said. It had been just what Riley had been hoping for when she made the move to the small university and smaller surrounding town, but when Elisha had met a guy on campus all of a week ago, that all seemed to come to a halt. The guy must have made a real impression for her to be so enamored so quickly.
Riley caught up with her roommate as her Aunt followed closely behind. “Well, you could walk with us to Dalton since it’s on the way. Besides, I want to hear all about this Jake guy. When do I get to meet him?”
Elisha picked up her step. “Sorry, but I’m really late. I’ve got to run if I’m going to make it on time!”
Riley stopped on the sidewalk as her Aunt closed the gap.
“Was that your roommate?” Aunt Lara asked.
“Yeah,” Riley answered, feeling bruised.
“Huh, she must be really late if she had to actually run,” Aunt Lara tilted her head, watching Elisha sprint across campus.
Riley huffed. “I guess.”
The rest of the walk to Dalton Aunt Lara discussed the happenings back home in Alexandria for the hundredth time. It was the same events that happened every year that they never joined in on, but for whatever reason, her Aunt seemed suddenly very interested in them.
“The Harvest Festival is coming up in a few weeks, not to mention the Columbus Day Fair. There is so much you are going to miss by not being home.”
“Yeah,” was Riley’s only response.
She was trying to focus on everything her Aunt was saying, but her mind was stuck on the two second conversation she had with Elisha. Something about it was off, or maybe it was just Elisha. Was something going on that she didn’t want to talk about in front of her Aunt? Could the guy she was dating be a total jerk and not treating her right, but she didn’t want to say it around anyone?
Riley searched her mind, looking for any hint of distress in Elisha’s demeanor, but all she had was how short her friend had been with her. Elisha wasn’t acting like herself, that was for sure, but Riley couldn’t figure out why. Hopefully she came back to the dorm tonight. Riley never realized how lonely sleeping by herself could be after sharing a room with someone for months.
Maybe that explained Leslie’s desire to keep her room occupied every night.
Riley threw that last thought away knowing there was nothing that could explain her assigned roommate’s revolving door of hook-ups.
“So, what do you think?” Aunt Lara asked.
Riley shook her head. “About what?”
Her Aunt sighed dramatically. “Have you not been listening this entire time? About all the events coming up?”
“What about them?”
“Don’t you want to go to them with me?”
Riley shook her head. “If they are during the week then no, but if it’s a weekend then I can plan to be there.”
“But the best ones are during the week! Especially Friday nights,” her Aunt wailed.
“I can’t miss class,” Riley stated flatly.
Her Aunt was so obvious. The older woman had always been a bit dramatic when she was trying to get her way. Riley had always thought of the classic beauty as a stable rock, but hearing her whine this way was slowly changing the image of her Aunt in Riley’s mind.
“Fine, fine, but expect to be home on the weekends from now on.”
Riley tried not to let her frustration seep into voice. “I’m not going to Alexandria every weekend.”
“Well, why not?” Her Aunt asked with hurt in her voice.
“This is my home now. I have friends here that I would like to spend time with outside of the classroom.”
Aunt Lara flipped her long silvering hair over her shoulder. “They obviously can’t take care of you like me, and a few seem preoccupied at the moment.”
Riley’s heart fell into her stomach as Elisha’s strange demeanor resurfaced in her mind. She’d have to find time alone to talk to her soon. Get to the bottom of her strange behavior.
“It’s not their job to take care of me, and I have more friends than Elisha,” Riley lied, realizing Elisha and Michael were all she really had. It was more than she ever had, so she wasn’t complaining.
“You wouldn’t need them if you came home with me.”
Riley opened the door to the cafeteria and immediately smelled warm cheese and pasta. Her stomach growled as the scent filled her with warmth, easing her mind of any icy thoughts. The fluorescent glow of the overhead lights lit up the room as everyone seemed happy while they filled their bellies.
Maybe her Aunt was right. Maybe she did need her around.
Michael walked up behind her and placed his arms around her waist. “Hello, beautiful.”
Riley smiled, thankful for the distraction. “Hey.”
“Mind if I join you for dinner?” Michael asked, kissing her cheek.
Riley laid her head back on his shoulder. The past few months had been filled with excitement because of him and his adventurous dates, but her feelings for him were steadily growing stronger every day. She hoped he would ask her to be his girlfriend soon, but every time she really thought about the commitment, something at the back of her mind lifted a gate of anxiety. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was somehow missing something. Michael was everything she had ever wanted in a potential relationship, but that tiny piece of herself told her there was something more out there.
Riley tried to smile as she pushed the gate closed, turning her lips toward him. “Of course. I’ve missed you.”
Just before Michael dipped his head to kiss her, Aunt Lara cleared her throat. “Still here.”
Michael closed the gap anyway and pecked her gently with a chuckle. “Sorry, Aunt Lara, but you’ve been hogging her this week.”
Riley giggled. At least someone had missed her.
Michael, Riley, and Aunt Lara ate dinner together, but that was about all Aunt Lara did. She sat quietly in the booth across from Riley and Michael, and barely said a word the entire night. Riley thought she caught her sulking a few times, but whenever she looked over at her, her Aunt would quickly look away and scan the room.
Michael held her hand the entire night as they discussed their classes and stole kisses on her knuckles whenever Aunt Lara wasn’t looking. As they finished their plates and were ready to head back to her dorm on the thirteenth floor of the Muse dormitory, Michael pulled Riley aside.
“Can we go on a real date tomorrow night? Like off campus, or will your Aunt flip out?”
Riley laughed. “I was hoping you’d ask. I’ve missed you, and I need to get out from under her thumb for a bit.”
Michael smiled and hugged her tight. “Perfect then I’ll pick you up at eight. We’ll head to Macado’s for another round of karaoke.”
“You can have the karaoke, just order me the quesadilla!” Riley exclaimed as he released her and headed for the door.
“See you tomorrow,” he winked. “Bye, Aunt Lara.”
Riley’s smile widened as she watched him walk back across campus toward his fraternity house. She hadn’t realized just how badly she had wanted to go out with him again but couldn’t help the mingling of desire to escape her Aunt’s watchful eye for just one night.
“Will he be dining with us again tomorrow?” Aunt Lara questioned agitatedly.
Riley sighed. “Actually, he asked me to go to Macado’s with him tomorrow.”
“Oh, well, I’m not sure that is really my niche, but I’m sure I could-”
Riley interrupted quickly. “I mean, he asked me on a date.”
“Oh,” Aunt Lara startled.
She could tell her Aunt was calculating her next statement carefully, but before she could begin some spiel, Riley flipped her red hair over her shoulder and headed for the path leading back to her dorm. She wasn’t going to listen to her Aunt drone on about how bad of an idea it would be, or what could happen while she was out. She had been on many dates with Michael at this point, walked with him to classes, ate meals with him and Elisha, and nothing ever happened. Michael wasn’t a trigger for her episodes.
Aunt Lara caught up with her as she passed in front of Whitt. “I know you don’t want to hear this-”
“Then don’t say it,” Riley stated flatly.
She had never disrespected her Aunt before, but maybe it was because she had never had to fight with her over anything back in Alexandria. Her life consisted of school and home every day. She had never had friends, let alone boyfriends, she had wanted to spend time with, so there was never a reason to disagree. Now, she felt like that was all she and her Aunt did.
“Riley, I’m looking out for your best interests, and if your parents were still around, I’m sure they would agree with me.”
Riley had had enough. “But they aren’t, are they? My life is my choice now! It’s not up to you anymore! I make the decisions on how I want it to go, and my decision is I’m staying here, and I’m going out with Michael tomorrow. If you don’t like it, well, I’m sorry, but I don’t care! I’m not living like I used to in Alexandria. I refuse to! I’m going to experience life even if it kills me.”
Aunt Lara stared at her with an expression Riley couldn’t discern, but tears were welling in Riley’s green eyes. She never thought she would speak to her Aunt that way, and it hurt her to her core. Riley turned and ran in the dark toward the illuminated Muse as her tears streaked down her cheeks.
One day, maybe sooner, she was going to regret what she said to her Aunt, but right now, all Riley wanted was to be as far away from her as possible. She ran up the walkway and into the elevator, but before she made it to Elisha’s room, she thought better of it, knowing too soon her Aunt would follow.
Riley checked the doorknob on her assigned room. There wasn’t a ribbon, but music played loudly on the other side. She jiggled her keys in the handle, hoping the noise would disrupt a potential booty-beat session, as her assigned roommate would call it, but no screams for denial of entry met her ears.
“Randy! How are you?” Leslie called from the foot of her bed as she contemplated a few dresses sprawled out in front of her. “Which do you think will bring more boys to the yard? My milkshake is need of stirring.”
Riley didn’t even try to decipher her real roommate’s meaning as she closed the door and landed face down on her mattress. She hadn’t stepped foot in the room in weeks. Leslie had practically claimed the entirety of it with her clothes, shoes, books, and condoms strewn everywhere but on Riley’s bed. All the reasons she didn’t stay in her assigned dorm room were displayed for whoever entered the room to see.
“Bad day?” Leslie asked, uninterested.
Riley rolled her eyes before turning her face to the wall that thumped with the beat of another popular song.
“What, nice and sweet hasn’t made a move yet?”
Riley continued to ignore her as the lyrics from the music erased her thoughts, giving her something to focus on besides her screwed up life.
“You’ve been dating him for how long now, and he still hasn’t sealed the deal? What is he waiting on, marriage?”
Riley huffed. “Some people believe in connecting on a deeper level first.”
“What fun is that?” Leslie scrunched up her nose, disgusted. “How about tall, dark, and handsome? Is he a free agent yet, or are you still hung up on him?”
Riley’s eyes snapped open as she turned to face her roommate. “Who?”
“You know, the guy who helped you ‘move in’,” Leslie sounded bored as she made the finger quotes.
Riley stared at the half naked girl. “Uh, I don’t know who you are talking about.”
Leslie finally looked over at her. “How could you forget that fine piece of ass? Aren’t you friends with his best friend’s girlfriend or whatever weird triangle they are all in?”
Riley tried raking her brain for any possible person Leslie could be thinking of but came up blank. Her ring of friends was small, and the number of guys interested in her was very clearly set at one.
Leslie shot Riley a sideways stare. “Huh, maybe you need your head examined. You can’t tell me you forgot someone as good looking as him because, let’s be honest, how many guys are actually attracted to you.”
Riley felt her fists ball at her sides as she rose from the bed. Her blood boiled at the all too familiar insinuation of being called crazy. She felt the ultimate desire to smack the girl but soothed herself into calm before she could raise her hand.
“How many guys are actually attracted to you versus think you’re an easy target?”
Leslie’s smile became malicious as she leaned against Riley’s bed and whispered. “Honey, I’m not a target. I’m the arrow. Maybe I’ll just go find Mr. tall, dark, and sexy, and prove I always hit the bullseye.”
Riley wasn’t sure why, but the very idea of Leslie touching the mystery man she kept mentioning sent Riley’s heart into a flutter of emotions: pain, anger, disgust. She pushed off her bed and rounded Leslie in a wide berth in fear of “accidentally” pushing past her. She stormed her way to the door, kicking Leslie’s strewn about clothes and shoes out of her way.
“Go ahead! Chalk another one up on your list of men! Have fun explaining that to a potential husband one day!”
Riley slammed the door as Leslie let out a booming cackle on the other side. She marched her way to Elisha’s room, seething as she slammed another door and face planted onto her borrowed mattress. She screamed into her pillow until all her frustration and anguish dissipated, but that had been a horrible idea.
Tears began to fall down her cheeks as a feeling of loss washed over her entire body, and she had no idea why. She knew she and her Aunt would make amends, so that wasn’t the cause. She had to talk to Elisha, but she didn’t think she had lost her yet. Everything with Michael was going perfectly, so why was she sobbing with grief as if she had lost the most important person she had ever met in her life?
Riley grabbed the tiny picture of her parents she had carried around with her since she was a child from the nightstand and clutched it to her chest. She had cried wishing for her parents as a kid more times than she could count, but it had been a long time since then. Maybe with Aunt Lara throwing in her face what they may have done or said had dredged up old emotions for the parents she had never known.
Riley looked at the picture, trying to make out their faces through her tears. They had always looked like a king and queen to her in the photo, dressed in all white on their wedding day. It was heartbreaking how in love they seemed with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, smiling at the camera with newlywed bliss.
Riley wiped her eyes, trying to control her sobs, wishing with everything within that her parents were with her. She begged the photo for the millionth time to understand why they had left her on her Aunt’s doorstep when she had been a baby.
Regardless of what her Aunt had said, she was sure they would understand and want a life full of experiences for her. They wouldn’t want her to go back to the misery of Alexandria and live the half-life she had been in her Aunt’s house.
Riley sat up quickly, searching the room for the voice. A woman’s voice, just barely above a whisper.
“Follow your light.”
Riley turned toward the bay window at her back, swearing the voice had come from directly behind her, but no one and nothing was there.
She pushed her fingers into her hair and squeezed her head as more tears welled in her eyes. She searched her mind for the owner of the voice, knowing she had heard it before, but came up empty.
Was Leslie right? After all the years of episodes consumed in darkness, was she finally going crazy?