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“A little gratitude wouldn’t go amiss, Miss Hughes.” Callouses mark the Dean’s knuckles; his hands folded on the mahogany desk before him.

I stare at the signs of another life and allow myself to wonder what sort of man moves from bare-knuckle fighting to leading a college of four thousand. “I apologize.” My gaze roams the room, drinking in the high cathedral-style windows behind his desk and the ornate cornices that partially hide behind the ceiling height built-in bookcases. “I am grateful.” I set my gaze on him, meeting steel eyes. “The news is fantastic, really. I’m just not used to this kind of opportunity.”

“A full scholarship is the least we could do to help your family in these trying times.” He leans back, the aged leather of his chair creaking beneath the weight of his broad frame. “Your mother is a light that we need if Salvation hopes to end the darkness we’ve encountered.”

“I’m sure she’ll do her best.” My fingers weave loosely in my lap. I hate to talk about Mom’s work; I have nothing to do with it. But people often confuse their admiration for her success with my thoughts on the matter. I couldn’t care less about what she does, only that her passion often takes her away from me—mentally and physically.

I know as much about the current caseload as these people.

Eleven deaths in the past fourteen months. The town of Salvation struggles to live up to its name, and nobody knows why. The first speculation, according to the papers, had been a serial killer. Some sad soul who felt the need to eradicate those who crossed their path. But when the deaths followed no known pattern, the cops stalled.

They couldn’t predict who’d be next, and in a tight-knit community such as this, instability leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those who assume control.

The mayor, most of all. The guy who phoned in my mother.

“We’ll be sure to accommodate you in any way possible.” Dean Auckart says as he rises from his seat, straightening the sides of his deep charcoal jacket. “I’ll allow you to get to your first class of the semester, Virginia.” His eyes show none of the grace that his words entail. “If you need anything, you be sure to let Mrs. Rogers know; she can make a time for you to see me.”

“Of course.” I snatch the strap of my backpack and stand. “I’ll keep that in mind.” Didn’t mean I’d do it.

I’ve survived the first twenty-one years of my life figuring things out on my own—I can do four more.

His secretary—the aforementioned Mrs. Rogers—rises from her seat when I leave the Dean’s office. I offer her a polite smile but don’t slow my roll as I push through the glass panel door into the belly of the beast.

Black River University.

We moved here the week after Mom got the job offer. Simply packed up our apartment in Chicago and took a long drive cross-country. Most of our belongings remain in transit; we live in an oversized rental equipped with the bare minimum. It’s quiet enough to hear a mouse sneeze. Quiet enough that I lose myself in the empty halls wondering why she’d take the job.

She hates this town. She left it twenty-four years ago for a damn good reason and yet, here we are. The last hope for a town that slowly turns on itself in the desperate need to find somebody to blame.

Someone who’ll pay.

Heads turn to where I stand in front of the administration door, curious gazes drifting the length of me before well-practiced apathy returns to the students’ features and they look away. I was under no illusion when Mom took the placement: I don’t fit in here. Decked out in my favorite clothes, I chose comfort over conformity this morning. Head to toe, I’m a bohemian-rock delight. Nothing like the surrounding sharp-dressed rich kids of the inbred elite. Shrugging my gray denim backpack higher, I let my pastel-pink waves fall around my face to provide some semblance of sanctuary while I navigate the foreign halls.

I’m not the kind to feel ashamed. I don’t need to hide. But a problem avoided is a day saved. Why bother with the opinions of sheep if I could avoid the confrontation altogether? I’m totally at peace with who I am—quirky and individual. Validation from these carbon copies is the last thing on my agenda.

Locker 999. I sigh at the slip in my hand and look for the nearest one to gauge how far I am from mine—miles away. The code I need to open the locker slides from my grasp as I attempt to pocket it for later, the white wisp fluttering to the ground at my feet. I spin and dive to retrieve it, mentally cursing out the messed-up start to my day.

“Eyes up, sunshine.” The polished boots beside my fingers positively growl at me. 

I trace the slim-fit black denim up impossibly long masculine legs and stall at the ornate buckle clasped at the owner’s waist: serpents twist around one another to create the oval decoration. The host huffs as though my momentary lapse in decorum amuses him. Pushing to stand on unsteady legs, I skim the taut black button-down and briefly note a heavy wool coat that drapes the package like a goddamn invitation, to then lock eyes with the physical epitome of trouble.

“Perhaps if you didn’t follow people so closely, you wouldn’t have almost stood on me.” I lift one eyebrow and pointedly snap my fist around the paper before shunting it in the pocket of my frayed denim shorts. “Have you not heard of personal space?”

Not even a glimmer of a smile. Hard audience to crack, then. “Don’t be so careless, and you won’t find yourself inconveniencing others with your erratic behavior.” His eyes remain deathly void of any discernable emotion, hooded beneath a hard brow and made even more menacing by the thick, dark lashes that frame his silver gaze. The guy’s eyebrows dip in a hard slash, the slightest curl to his top lip letting me know exactly what he thinks of me.

My mouth hangs slack, words an elusive ally against this enemy. I don’t even know where to begin with that sterling line, let alone who the fuck this guy thinks he is to be such a jackass to people he doesn’t know. He will not ruin my vibe. I know energy vampires when I meet them, and this guy seems overdue for his next fix. With a tip of his head, the mess of black hair that sat purposefully tousled mere moments before slides to shield one eye. He makes a pointed step sideways, scowls at me, and resumes his stride through the halls.

Halls that now border on empty as the start of the first class nears. I take a deep breath, noting the rise in my heart rate after that blunt interaction, and turn to glance at the jerk. Not a fucking sign of him remains. Nothing other than the steady rise and fall of my chest as I start toward my classroom.

Nobody has done that to me for years; shaken me in a way I can’t control. My mother is a fucking psychologist—I knowself-control. Name a cognitive tool and I show you how I have it mastered. But there was something about him. Something that isn’t found in the untouched inkiness of his hair, or the slight alabaster to his perfect skin. A detail not found between the hate-filled words he dealt down to me as I knelt at his feet like a fucking pauper. I felt that guy’s essence in my goddamn gut. His anger and frustration seeped through me from head to toe and made it impossible to breathe until he walked away. Goddamn pretty boys. I read romance novels. I’m no stranger to the mystical creature that is the absolute alpha. But they’re fantasy, right? I’ve never met one in the flesh… until now. Holy shit. 

“I bet the girls love him,” I mutter under my breath and push open the door to History Classics.

The professor stops his morning preamble and pointedly stares my way. Swell. “I’m sorry.” He takes a step toward me, hands before him in a prayer position. “Was that whisper you offering a reason for why you’re late?”

Yeah—a run-in with the devil. “Apologies.” I glare at the ceiling over his head. “First day.”

He sighs, and I note the absolute silence of the rest of the class. “Take a seat and make sure this doesn’t become a habit, Miss…”

“Hughes.” With a lop-sided smile, I attempt to appease the guy and spin left to make my way into the lecture hall. Everyone watches me. No exaggeration. I let my gaze drift across the rows, one by one, to confirm I don’t imagine the shade tossed my way. Nope. This place has a thing for newcomers, it seems.

And maximum class capacity. 

The last thing I wanted to do after that awesome entry was draw even more attention to myself, but when the rows are full one after the other, I kind of have to. Like a goddamn sore thumb, I stand to the side of the class and frown while I attempt to locate a spare seat that’s acceptably far enough from the nearest neighbor. I miss the gap the first time—no thanks to the thirsty redhead poured halfway across the chairs to dote on the guy at the end of the row.

He watches me with the same intensity I’ve felt before—in the hallway. The same pale blue eyes, the same shock of jet-black hair, but not the same guy.

“Either find a seat, Miss Hughes,” the professor calls, “or make use of your time stalling the class and introduce yourself.”

Could the day get any worse? I look pointedly at the empty seat and then the girl half-inhabiting it.

She lifts her brow as though to ask, “What are you going to do about it?”

Apparently, I’m not going to do anything. The silent observer at the end sets a firm palm to the base of her throat and pushes. She squeaks at the gesture and slouches in her spot, arms folded to enhance what couldn’t be a natural rack. I note the cashmere knit sweater and the tell-tale pleated skirt. Great—she’s a cheerleader. Sure enough, the harlot shifts her position and the school emblem stretched on the underside of her breast swell comes into view.

Aware that the professor still hasn’t resumed his preamble, I step over the guy’s long legs to take the seat. “Thanks.”

Nothing. Not a goddamn word. My ass hits the scratched plastic, and the air grows thin. Between the layers of hate Strawberry Shortcake throws from my left, and the intense silence Dark and Broody gives on my right, it appears I’ve found the best seat in the house—for sure. Yeah, I’m being sarcastic. 

I dig into my backpack and pull out a notebook and pen, laying them on the table. The professor wraps up the morning announcements and launches directly into the expectations for us this semester. I took Classics because Mom thought it would be a good all-rounder. The truth was, I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to major in. Until three weeks ago, I’d resigned myself to the knowledge I wouldn’t go to college. Tuition wasn’t in our budget, with Mom being a single parent. Her income would have allowed for a loan, but our transient lifestyle doesn’t. Oddly enough, financial institutions like stability and our laundry list of addresses don’t look stable at all.

“Where did you find that cardigan?” Strawberry whispers to my left.

I frown at her and lift one hand to the back of my neck, resting my elbow on the tabletop while leaning my head against the folded arm to pointedly block her. “Online.”

She smiles in my periphery, lithe fingers plucking the dark gray open-knit from my forearm. “Wow. It’s positively—” She pauses for emphasis, eyes hardening. “Disgusting.”

“Matches your desperation, then,” I quip without missing a beat.

A snort to my right breaks the silence, but a glance confirms the guy hasn’t moved. Arms folded high on his chest, he leans back in the seat and watches the professor detail the exams we’ll take before the year is out. Unlike the guy from earlier, this one’s hair is clipped short at the sides. He still sports the length on top, but it doesn’t hide his eyes the same. Eyes that pierce into my soul despite the fact he doesn’t look at me. Definitely related. He wears the same black on black as the jackass in the hall, but his style is more street than catwalk. Still, with the heavy coat, collar tugged high to cover his neck. Not enough for me to miss the tips of a tattoo that curl around his throat. Olive leaves, it appears to be. Weird. 

“Don’t even think about it,” Strawberry hisses. 

“Think about what?” I mutter out the side of my mouth to avoid drawing the professor’s eye again.

She drops a short huff from her nose. “Taking what’s not yours.”

I lean back and roll my shoulders to let the bitch know that she has my full attention. “Doesn’t appear to be yours, either.”

This time there’s no mistaking the laugh at my back. Rich, and deep, it fast becomes my new favorite sound.

One that promises to be my utter undoing.

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