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Protected (Book 1 in the Ariya Adams Trilogy)

By @AuthorAnnaApplegate

Chapter 2

An hour later, Caroline introduced me to Nick. He was handsome and tall with a mop of blond shaggy hair. After a few minutes of watching their interactions, it seemed more like they had known each other for years than just a month or so. 

Caroline excused the two of us so we could get ready, telling Nick to make himself at home. She pulled me into her room and shut the door.

“So?” she questioned anxiously.

“Two thumbs up.” Sticking my thumbs up to demonstrate caused the already large smile on her face to grow even more. She pranced to the closet and flung a silver sequin top and a pair of skinny jeans at me.

“You know how I feel about sequins.” I looked at her disgustedly.

“That’s what you’re wearing. It’ll look amazing, and since I’m the only one with any sort of fashion sense, it’s what you’re stuck with,” she said as she flitted through the closet for her own outfit. When she turned, I brought my hand up in a salute.

“Aye-aye.” Turning, I headed to the bathroom to throw everything on. Before I could shut the door, Caroline barked out another ensemble order at me.

“Grab those black boots out of the front closet and you’ll be set.”

“Have I told you how much I love you?” I asked, poking my head out of the bathroom door.

“It’s obvious, now hurry up.” She shooed me in to change, and I quickly pulled on the clothes she had picked out for me.

The black boots were one of my many fashion enemies. It was like a wrestling match to get them on and up over jeans, but Caroline would murder me if I wasn’t victorious. 

A deep laugh caught my attention, and I raised my eyes to find Nick watching my struggle with an amused look on his face. 

“I feel so much better knowing that I’m not the only one she tries to boss around and stick into uncomfortable ensembles,” he said, holding out his hand and offering his assistance. 

“She meddles with you, too?” I chuckled. 

Nick took either side of the boot and pushed in one smooth force, finally accomplishing what was taking me way too long.

“You’re good,” I smiled as he bowed. 

“Anything to help a friend,” he said. “Oh, and don’t tell Care, but sometimes I don’t mind her getting her way with this stuff.” He shrugged and ran a hand over his clothes. 

“Your secret is safe with me. As long as we’re confessing, I don’t mind either.” I dropped my voice to a whisper and we both laughed for a moment. 

“Something funny?” Caroline said as she appeared with her hands on her hips. She couldn’t hide her smile though. 

“Nope, just going to throw on some makeup. Be right out.” I jogged down the hallway back to my room. After a light makeup application, light being the keyword—I didn’t have the skills or energy to look like a beauty queen with contour and highlighting and whatever else people did—I took one last look at myself. This is as good as it’s going to get, I told myself, shrugging at my reflection.

We left the apartment and headed down the path through the woods behind our complex that led to Ashley’s building in a neighboring development. In a small college town, none of us were really that far from each other. 

We were early and the first ones to arrive for the night. Ashley acted excessively enthusiastic about meeting Nick. She got the death glare a couple times from Caroline when she reached out to touch Nick’s arm. Beyond that, there was no drama between the girls. 

I squealed when I was distracted from the conversation as I felt arms wrap around me and lift me up off the ground. I turned my head to see that I was in the embrace of Riley Blake, my best friend besides Caroline. He dropped me to the floor and grabbed a cup off the counter, then reached over to the keg to pour himself a beer.

“Can you believe this is it?” He chugged back a few gulps and I shook my head. Boys.

“No! Don’t tell me you’re going to go all mushy on me thinking you’re never going to see me again after graduation.” I laughed, pushing into him playfully.

“Please, you’d miss me too much if we never saw each other again. Now, how about a celebratory kiss for your favorite guy before our time runs out here?”

Riley was charming, too charming for his own good. He could sweet talk his way in and out of just about anything. Teachers, police officers, and even parking cops were no match for Riley. I’d seen him weasel his way out of almost everything in the past three years that I’d known him.

I hit his arm at his kissing comment, knowing it was harmless, and changed the subject to his summer. After catching up, he noticed more people had arrived, so he bowed playfully, leaving to make his rounds. I headed to grab myself beer and found Caroline already refilling her glass.

“Where’s Nick?” I asked, looking around.

“He ran upstairs for a minute to use the bathroom. Isn’t he dreamy?” 

“I think that’s the first time you’ve ever used the word dreamy in a non-mocking-Ariya tone. Are you drunk already?” I said before taking a sip of my own newly poured drink.

She stuck her tongue out at me and stepped around to my side, leaning up against the wall. “Have you seen Ashley’s guy yet?”

“No, but I’m sure we’ll be introduced the second he arrives. How does she meet all of these guys, anyway?” We snickered, and as if on cue, Ashley walked up.

“Hey gals! This here is Devon. He’s new this year, just a baby sophomore.” Ashley giggled as she spoke, and I tried my best to keep the annoyance off my face. “I thought it’d be fun to invite him over and show him around.”

Devon tilted his head at us in a cocky, smug way. “Ladies,” he said. His voice held a strange tone that immediately made me uncomfortable. But he was very typical for the kind of guys Ashley latched onto, so I shook it off. 

It took everything in me not to look at Caroline and roll my eyes at that moment, but I just shook the flavor-of-the-month’s hand and said, “Welcome to Kingsbrook.” 

He looked pleasant enough with his full lips and honey-brown eyes. At first glance, he was fairly attractive, but he looked much older than a sophomore and a little rough around the edges. 

Something unsettling passed over me when he smiled at me, and I scolded myself for making any kind of judgment about him before we’d even spoken. Just because he hopped on the “Ashley Train” didn’t mean he was a bad guy. Flashing a quick smile back, I turned to see if Caroline had noticed anything off as well. She was acting as normal as ever. Well, as normal as she ever acted around Ashley. 

“How’d you all meet?” Curiosity was getting the better of me.

“Oh, well, I met Devon hiking a couple weeks ago.”

“Hiking?” Caroline and I said in unison. I couldn’t help the eye contact on that one. Ashley didn’t normally do outdoorsy things like hike.

“Yep.” She smiled sweetly at Devon, who was smirking at me with an intensity behind his eyes that was making me a bit uncomfortable. Ashley seemed to notice it too.

“We hit it off right away, right, babe?” Ashley prompted. Devon’s eyes flicked back to her and his smirk turned into more of a devilish grin. He didn’t answer her, though.

“Well, on to more introductions,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll see y’all later.”

We hadn’t even finished the conversation before she was dragging him away. She clearly wanted to parade him around as much as possible, or maybe it was because she’d noticed the way Devon kept staring at me. Maybe this outfit looked strange or something.

“That was weird,” I whispered to Caroline, wondering if she, too, had noticed the attention Devon had been giving me.

“What was weird?” she asked. Apparently, she didn’t think anything was off at all. Either the beer was getting to me, or I was paranoid.

“Ariya! I’ve been looking for you.” Riley’s voice parted the crowd, and I cocked my head to the side as he made his way toward us. “I wanted you to meet a friend of mine, James Rymer. He just joined the hockey team, and I told him he had to meet our cheerleaders.”

I made a face at him for the cheerleader comment before turning to see the latest new guy. If Caroline and Ashley had handsome men on their arms, there wasn’t even a word to describe James. His light brown hair fell in his face ever so slightly, and beautiful light-blue eyes with darker spots scattered throughout them looked back at me. I’d never seen eyes like his before. His skin was flawless, his jaw defined. He was taller than me by a good bit. I was five foot eight, but I had to tilt my head back slightly to see all of him with how close they were standing. He had to be well over six feet tall.

James was wearing a black shirt that hugged his chest. I could tell he wasn’t overly buff, but he was defined, broad shouldered, and solid. My breath caught for a minute and I tried to recover swiftly.

I reached out my hand. “Ariya Adams.”

He smiled with one side of his mouth and just said, “James.”

His voice was low and strong, like the kind of voice the guy off the cover of a romance novel should have. I tried to think of something clever to say, but my brain fogged. What’s wrong with me? I’d never acted like this around a guy.

“Are you new here?” I managed to pull myself together enough to start a conversation.

“Guilty. I just came to finish out my senior year.” His eyes danced as if he had a private joke about just being here for his senior year. 

I was surprised at how many new introductions were taking place today. For a small college, I thought that was kind of strange, especially since I didn’t think we’d met anyone new since we were freshmen. So far, we appeared to be off to an exciting final year.

“Where were you before?” I continued, not wanting to stop the conversation with him. His voice was captivating.

“More of a city than Mineral Point.” His answer was short, but since he wasn’t leaving the conversation, I assumed he was simply shy. 

“Neat.” Neat? I seriously needed someone to save me from myself. Fortunately, Riley spoke up, ever the lifesaver.

“Yeah, James is going to play right wing on the team. We’re gonna be the dynamic duo on the ice this year. You should have seen him at practice this morning. He scored about three times on Johnny.”

“So you’ve been roped into hockey, I see?” I smiled playfully. There was my inner social diva; I guess she just needed some encouragement.

He raised his eyebrow at me, causing my heart to start pounding so loudly that I was sure he’d hear. “I hadn’t really played much before, but it seems like the popular thing to do around here.”

Caroline leaned over and introduced herself and Nick after that. We all stood talking for a bit before I decided I needed some air.

“I’ll be right back,” I said once I refilled my beer.

It only took a momentary touch on Caroline’s arm for her to tell Nick she needed some air too. We went out back on the balcony. I was surprised to find it empty, since this was usually the hot spot for partygoers to congregate. The keg was in the house instead of back here, so that was probably the only reason we had it to ourselves.

“Wow,” Caroline said. “I mean, you must think he’s something else, right?” As I turned toward her, she continued, “If there was ever a time for you to break your I-hate-boys phase, it’s now.”

“I love that you knew that’s what I wanted to talk about.”

“I haven’t seen you act that way around a guy in…well, ever, actually. Come on, you think he’s hot, right?” She nudged my arm.

“I’m in an I-hate-boys phase, Care. I’m not blind.”

“So that’s a yes! This is a nice change. For once you have a crush that I don’t have to convince you to like! Let’s get back in there and have some fun, shall we?” 

I hesitated. “You think I should go for it? Ashley might decide she wants an upgrade from Devon and pounce,” I said rather bitterly.

I wasn’t unattractive, and I had enough self-esteem to get me through most days as a confident woman. However, when it came to guys, I felt I couldn’t really compete with Miss Southern Belle.

“Oh, shut it with the self-doubt ****. You’re ten times the woman Ashley is! Be yourself. He’s probably as stubborn as you are when it comes to the opposite sex.” She looked amused at her comment, and I frowned.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Her face continued to look like she was laughing to herself about something, which boggled me.

“All right, keep your secrets. Let’s go.”

As the words came out, Caroline held up her arm like she was escorting me to a ball. After giving her a you’ve got to be kidding look, we walked back inside. The boys were still talking by the keg right where we’d left them. When we walked back up, though, James said it was nice to meet us and that he was sure he would see us soon and walked away. 

So much for breaking the I-hate-boys phase.

After a couple more hours and a few more drinks, I decided it was time to call it a night. Snaking through the mass of people who now occupied Ashley’s apartment proved to be difficult. I finally ended up finding Caroline and Nick making out in the corner of the kitchen. Calling her name did no good over the blaring music that had steadily risen in volume over the course of the evening. I stuck my fingers in my mouth and whistled, a trick I was proud of, and yelled louder. Hearing me finally, she looked up—glassy-eyed and smiling. 

“I’ll see you at home!” I yelled.

She nodded and went right back to Nick. Riley was by the front door with James. At least I’ll get to say goodnight. I reached into Ashley’s closet and tugged out my jacket. As I went to slip it on, I felt hands assisting me from behind. Then I heard Riley’s voice.

“You’re leaving? Are you sure you can get home safely? You want me to walk you?” He finished helping with my jacket and flirtatiously propped himself up on the doorframe blocking my exit. He had a tendency to be even more of a ladies’ man while drinking.

I ducked under his arm. “Good night, Riley.” I smiled, then turned to James. “Good night.” He nodded politely at me.

I heard Riley shouting after me, “You’ll give in to me one of these days, princess.”

I raised my arm over my head, brushing him off and waving goodbye all at once as I cautiously navigated my way down the stairs of the apartment building and rounded the corner to get to the path home. I’d never been good at drinking, not that it was a skill I particularly wanted to be good at. But the few drinks I had were enough to make me a little off balance to say the least.

“Oh gosh, I’m so sorry,” I said as I bumped into another couple going at it. Geez, love is in the air this year! Scratch that, it was probably just lust and alcohol.

The guy looked up at me, and I recognized the couple was Ashley and Devon. Ah, love for her, then, and lust for him. 

I wanted to throw up at the sight of her tongue down his throat and his hands exploring her body in ways that should have been publically embarrassing for her. Come on, Ashley! When Devon made eye contact with me, I could swear his eyes were glowing. His cheeks were a bit sunken in and his skin looked dull as well. He had definitely looked more attractive inside. Out here, he looked crazy. Clearly, I must have had more to drink than I thought. 

“Sorry…uh, again, guys. I was just heading home. Thanks for the party, Ash. See you tomorrow,” I blurted out as I rushed away from them as quickly as I could without breaking into an all-out sprint. Had Devon’s eyes actually been glowing? No, don’t be silly, I laughed, shaking my head at how ridiculous that sounded, even if it was just in my thoughts.

I could see the lights of my own apartment complex after a minute of walking. The clearing was visible ahead when a low snarling noise caught my attention. It sounded far off in the distance, but it was still definitely a sound I was not used to hearing on my walk home. I turned around, looking back the way I had come. The news story I’d heard earlier flashed through my head, almost like a warning. I felt a chill down my spine. 

Just hurry home and lock the door, simple enough

It wasn’t that much farther. Turning back around to continue toward my building, I was abruptly stopped in my tracks.

Standing right in front of me was a shaggy, growling animal. It was baring its teeth at me and almost appeared like it was making eye contact. Closing my eyes, I shook my head in an attempt to regain some sobriety. When I reopened them, the scene in front of me hadn’t changed, and it was far too real to be an illusion. A wolf was blocking my path, and if I wasn’t mistaken, he was ready to attack.

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