? Erin asked as she tugged her hair free. Black, loose curls fell around her shoulders. There wasn’t even a crimp in her hair from the ponytail.
Apollo’s grin turned cheeky. “You will know who it is when you see them.” A puff of smoke appeared as he waved his hand, and as it faded into the night, I saw that he had a slip of paper. Neat ability. “This is their schedule. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding them.”
Frowning, I took the paper and quickly scanned it. It was a class schedule—a boring class schedule full of psychology and sociology classes. “Okay. And what exactly am I supposed to do with this person?”
“Keep them alive.”
I exhaled noisily. “No shit, Apollo.”
“You will both need to go to the Covenant in South Dakota— to the University there.”
My spine straightened as if someone jacked me up. That was the last place I wanted to go. There were people there I didn’t want to see. “Why? Who is this person?”
Apollo’s smile returned, he winked, and then he was gone. Just like that. Poof. There one second and gone the next. Son of a bitch, I also hated that. More than just a little annoyed, my gaze dropped to the slip of paper. There were initials on the schedule.
Sounded like a dickhead name.
Turning to the ocean, I let out a string of curses directed toward Apollo, and as the wind lifted the shorter hairs that had escaped the leather thong holding the hair back from my face, I swore I heard that bastard laugh.
I couldn’t say I was surprised that Apollo hadn’t given me a lot to work on. The jerk was known for delivering little to no information, or handing out what he did know in doses at the most inopportune moments, usually after the information would’ve been helpful.
One thing for sure; whoever I was supposed to keep safe really got the shittier end of the deal, considering the last person I’d been tasked with protecting had ended up with a titanium bullet in his forehead.
MOM HEAVED a huge sigh, causing the connection between us to crackle in my ear. “Baby, I wish you weren’t so far away, where I can’t help you or be near to you when you need me.”
My mom was mentally unstable.
Not in the “ha ha, your mom is so cray cray” kind of way, but in the way she was one hundred percent convinced that, twenty years ago, an honest-to-God angel had visited her in the middle of the night and gotten her pregnant with me.
A diagnosed schizophrenic, she’d been doing okay the last couple of years because she’d stuck to her medical regimen, but all those years before then had been rough, sometimes scary, and always exhausting.
It didn’t help that Mom had been young when she’d gotten pregnant, barely seventeen, and in the small town I’d grown up in, people hadn’t been kind to young, unwed mothers. And the community sure as hell hadn’t been understanding of her mental illness, either.
“Mom, I really need to go,” I said into my phone, glancing over as the door to the dorm room sprung opened. Erin Fore sashayed in, practically glowing from her morning run along the New River Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She preferred to do her runs outside even though we had a fitness center in our residence hall. I preferred to lollygag on an elliptical machine. Screw the hard, running-outside crap—that required effort.
“I really wish you’d come back home. You’re all the way across the world,” she said.
I fought the urge to sigh. This was hard for Mom. I kept telling myself that. “It’s not ‘all the way across the world.’ You’re in Missouri. I’m in Virginia. It’s not that far, Mom.”
Erin’s dark brown eyes caught mine and sympathy filled her gaze. We’d been roomies for the last three semesters, almost two years. She knew all about my mom troubles, and she totally understood why I was majoring in psychology. Because of my mom’s illness, I was fascinated with how the human brain worked—and all the things that could go wrong with it. Growing up dealing with mental illness had given me a unique perspective on the ripple effects on other family members. I wanted to help those with the illness, and I also wanted to help those who were caregivers.
But it was more than that. Maybe if I understood how the mind worked, I’d be able to avoid the same fate as my mother.
“I’d feel better if you just came home,” she continued as if I hadn’t even spoken. “There are good colleges here. When you left after this summer, it was hard, Josephine. I want you home. Things aren’t right.”
I froze as I was sliding my flats on my feet, halfway bent over with long strands of light brown hair hanging in my face. I stared at my hair, seeing the almost-white streaks mingling with the more normal color. I hadn’t put those blonde streaks there. They’d formed when I was in middle school.
Mom had said they were my angel father’s grace showing up. That sounded cool, but they more than likely had formed from spending my summers outside by the lake. For some reason, they’d never faded, and since I kind of liked them, I never dyed my hair.
Guilt roiled in my stomach, and I thought the same thing I’d thought every day since I’d left for college. I shouldn’t have left her. But the town had been slowly killing me. I’d had to get away, I had to live, and my grandparents had supported that need. They wanted me to have a normal life, so much so that they had saved every red penny to send me to school, to get me away from the bigotry and the soul-consuming responsibility of being my mom’s daughter.
“Josephine,” she whispered.
No one called me Josephine except for my mom, but that wasn’t what made my heart skip a beat. I straightened, turning away from Erin as I headed to the tiny dresser and plucked up a faux-gold bangle. I lowered my voice, even though it was pointless to do so in our cramped dorm room. “What’s not right?”
“The world is in its last stages.” While her hushed words were dire, the tension seeped out of my shoulders. This was nothing new. “You can’t have forgotten what happened last year.”
No one in their right mind could have forgotten all the cataclysmic destruction that seemed to have rippled across the world. A water cyclone had wiped large chunks of the North Carolina coast off the map. Volcanoes, large-scale earthquakes, tsunamis—entire cities had been destroyed. Countries had been on the verge of World War III. It really had seemed like the end of the world, and there had been a teeny moment when I’d been afraid that maybe my mom had been right all along, but then it all had stopped, simply just stopped, and since then, everyone— the whole world—was all let’s-hold-hands-and-love-one-another. Even countries that’d been fighting with one another since forever had stopped their bloodshed, and peace now prevailed and all that good stuff.
It took millions of people to die to wake everyone up, but it hadn’t been the movie 2012 coming to life. The world hadn’t ended. It had just been Mother Nature bitch-slapping humanity into its place.
“Mom, the world’s not ending.” I grabbed another bangle, this one a more dirty-gold color, and slipped it onto my left wrist. “Everything is fine. I’m okay. And you’re okay, right?”
“Yes, baby, but I just…I have a bad feeling,” she whispered into the phone, and that poured the tension back into my shoulders. “You know, a real bad feeling.”
It was hard to drag in the next breath as I closed my eyes. A “bad feeling” was our code word for relapse—for auditory and visual hallucinations, for her slipping away from my grandparents and inadvertently putting her life in danger. My heart started pounding fast. When I turned, Erin was sitting on her narrow bed, kicking off her shoes. Concern pinched her downright gorgeous face. “What kind of ‘bad feeling’ do you have?”
Mom started talking about how she was having dreams about my father. “A great change is coming. Everyone is going to…”
As she spoke, Erin mouthed is she okay?
I shook my head, feeling heartsick. By the time I got off the phone, I knew I was going to be late for Abnormal Psychology if I didn’t book it, but all I wanted to do was climb into my bed and pull the patchwork quilt my granny had made me over my head.
“Is she relapsing???
Erin was perfect.
She was also a sweetie.
“Yeah.” I flipped my hair—my heavy hair that never held a curl, but sure as hell showed a crimp if it were up in any ponytail for a second—as I grabbed my backpack off the floor. “I’m going to call Granny after class. They probably already know, but didn’t want to worry me.”
She rose to her feet gracefully, showing off incredibly long, incredibly smooth, dark legs. I was convinced that hair didn’t grow on her legs. Seriously. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Sneak me some tequila tonight?” I slugged the bag over my shoulder.
Her full lips curved in a grin. “I always know where to get the good shit.”
That she did. It was kind of odd, since she was only twenty, like me. I had no idea where she got the endless supply of alcohol. I swear she could just walk into a liquor store, flash those killer legs and beautiful smile, and they just handed over anything she wanted.
I, on the other hand, would get laughed right out of the store.
“I’ll also get us some junk food—like rocky road ice cream, dill-flavored potato chips, and—oh—those chocolate-covered pretzels.” She opened the door for me. “How does that sound?”
“You’re amazing.” Springing forward, I hugged her quickly and then pulled back, flushing as I backed away. I was such a dork, it was embarrassing.
Erin simply allowed me to be on the receiving end of a stellar smile. She didn’t get it, though. She grew up outside of DC, in a big city, in a big family, surrounded by friends she’d made on the track team. Me? Growing up virtually friendless in a town that saw the kid of an unwed mother as the devil’s spawn made me truly value the friendship I had with her.
Before I made things even more awkward by throwing myself at her feet and thanking her for being my friend, I wiggled my fingers in a wave and hurried out of the room. As I all but raced down the hall, I had to compartmentalize, placing what was happening with Mom in the corner of my mind to revisit after class. I needed to pay attention today. This was our last lecture before the exam on Friday.
I stepped outside Muse Hall, tugging the loose cardigan close as my feet hit the paved walkway. Spring was in the air and tiny leaves were sprouting from the branches, but the chill of winter hadn’t left the campus yet. The dorm was great—co-ed, fun, had its own dining hall—but it was a heck of a walk to Russell Hall, where the Ab Psych class was held, and I had a feeling I’d be blown into the trees before I reached the building.
The wind was whipping down through the valley, tossing my hair back from my face. I hunched my shoulders, keeping my chin down as I stepped out from under the stone awning, not paying attention to the array of students hanging out at the entrance or lounging on the benches. On a good day, I was easily distracted, but when I became nervous or stressed, everything was a bright, shiny object and I had the attention span of a goldfish. I couldn’t afford getting lured into a conversation and inevitably missing class.
I followed the path around the neatly landscaped park. On nicer, warmer days, I’d spent time studying under the large, black oak trees. The campus was truly beautiful. It was one of the reasons why I’d enrolled.
That, and no one knew who I was here, or who my mother was.
Folding my arms more tightly across my chest, I’d just reached the halfway point when I felt something…something weird and familiar and definitely unwanted. It started off as a shiver exploding at the base of my spine and then shimmying up. The odd tremor spread over the nape of my neck, dancing along my shoulders. Tiny hairs rose all over my body, and my feet somehow got tangled with the flat ground. I tripped as unease bloomed in the pit of my belly like a noxious weed determined to take over.
I glanced over my shoulder, my gaze darting across the swaying branches and the benches, but I didn’t see anything abnormal. Students were everywhere, talking in groups, doing their own thing, but I couldn’t shake the distinct feeling of eyes on me, drilling into my skin, muscle, and bone.
But no one was paying a damn bit of attention to me. They never were, when I had these feelings. It was all in my head.
Picking up my pace, I couldn’t outrun the unease that was steadily growing into a pungent, bitter ball of panic in the back of my throat. My heart picked up, pushing my pulse into cardiac workout territory, and I could feel the sweat dotting my palms.
“Crap,” I muttered.
I stopped, forcing myself to draw in several deep, slow breaths, but pressure clamped down on my chest. The shivers extended up the back of my skull. Was this it? A warning symptom? Was this how it’d started for Mom? A bunch of studies linked genes to mental illness. There was roughly a twenty-five percent chance I would develop schizophrenia. And I was in the right age group for the onset of the disease.
I’m not getting sick. I’m not getting sick.
Closing my eyes, I wrapped a trembling hand around the strap of my book bag. This was not a symptom of a mental disorder. I was just tired. Stressed. I was totally okay. Everything would be fine.
It had to be.
Turned out, I made it to class on time and was able to focus during the lecture, so I figured I was prepared for the exam on Friday. When Jesse Colbert, another psych major who took a bunch of classes with me, lingered in the seat beside me while I gathered up my stuff, I tried not to act like a total goober.
He was a tall guy, around my age, with hair as dark as polished obsidian. Good looking. Nice. Great cheekbones. Really cute and always had an easy smile on his face. Awesome hands. I had a thing for male hands for some reason and his hands—rough, masculine, long-fingered. I liked them.
Pulling my thoughts away from my weird semi-fetish, I forced what I hoped wasn’t a creepy smile. “Hey.”
Grabbing his books, he sent a slight grin in my direction. “We still on for tomorrow night?”
Standing, I shoved the massive text into my bag. “Yep. It’s a date…” My brain winced, backpedaling away from that comment. “I mean, not a date date. Like going out and stuff. Dinner. Whatever.” Feeling my cheeks burn, I focused on the corner of his shoulder. “Study date, but without any real dating stuff.”
Oh my God, I needed to shut up, because this was why I never got a date date. Oh Lord, now my face was really burning, because I was standing in front of Jesse thinking about why I was still a virgin. I wish my brain had an off switch.
He watched me through the whole ridiculous ramble, and when I finally clamped my mouth shut, he chuckled. “Yeah, I know, Josie. See you tomorrow at six?”
“Yeah. Six. In the evening, right?” Shoot me in the head. Please? “Of course. Perfect.”
He hesitated, and then with his grin lifting up the corners of his lips, he wheeled around. Sighing, I mentally listed the ways I was the Queen of All Dorks as I headed out the door. I made a pit stop in the restroom, mostly so I could put off calling my grandparents for a few more minutes. I wasn’t ready to hear what I already knew, and I hated that, because it made me a coward. But I washed my hands twice, worked a tiny brush through my wind-tousled hair, reapplied my lip-gloss, and then moseyed out into the hall. Classes had already started up and I headed to the closest stairwell, letting the door swing shut behind me. Thoughts once again focused on my mom and calling Granny. I needed to get this over with. I tugged my bag around and reached in for my phone.
I have no idea how what happened next went down.
Only a few steps from the second-floor landing, a cold blast of air whipped up from the floor below, shooting right through me, strong enough to startle me. I reached out to grip the railing as my bag slipped off my shoulder, hit the step by my foot, and then bounced its way down to the landing.
What in the world?
For several seconds, I stared at my bag and then I looked over my shoulder. I had no clue what I expected to see standing there— maybe
Casper the pervy ghost or something? A little wigged out, I turned around and almost fell backward out of shock.
A guy stood in front of me. Well, he wasn’t standing. He was bending down to pick up my bag. But how in the world did he get there? I hadn’t heard anyone walk up the stairs, and there was no way anyone could get up them that fast in the first place…unless he’d sprouted wings and flown up the stairs, but I didn’t think that was likely.
I could only see half of him, and even from that, I could tell he was tall. I wasn’t a small girl, coming in close to five foot nine, but this guy would make me feel…dainty standing next to him.
A deep-brown henley stretched taut over broad shoulders and extremely well-defined upper arms. Blond hair was pulled back at the nape of his neck by a brown leather band. Shorter strands had slipped free, obscuring his face as long fingers wrapped around the strap of my bag.
Oh my, my—he had beautiful hands.
His skin was golden, all the way up to where the sleeves were pushed up his forearms. I’d never seen a complexion like that. It wasn’t tanned, but something else. My breath floated up my throat, and then stopped as he straightened.
A curved, almost-stubborn chin was paired with a cut, strong jaw. The upper lip was only slightly thinner than his bottom one and those loose strands of hair now caressed broad, high, golden cheekbones.
Then I saw his eyes.
I jerked back, lost my balance, and my ass plopped down on the