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If I screamed, someone would hear me, I hoped. Then again, would my scream cause the wolf to pounce immediately?
I slowly started backing away, but that only made the animal growl more. I wasn’t sure whether I should scream and yell for help or patiently stand still and pray for it to leave.
The beast looked ferocious, and I had a flashback to the image that the news had shown earlier that evening. I narrowed my eyes, looking the animal over carefully as my heartbeat increased more and more. That animal had been deep in the woods on a hiking trail; this was a short path near a populated area.
The beast growled and put a paw forward toward me, its sharp claws digging into the dirt path. I held up my hands and let out a shaky breath, trying to somehow get a message across that I wasn’t going to hurt the stupid creature. The huge wolf tilted its head as if it was enjoying watching the panic trickle over me like melting ice. I wanted to back up again but was frozen in place, unable to make any kind of movement. This was bad.
To my right there was rustling, as if trees and branches were being pushed out of the way. A blur shot across the path at the wolf. Both the blur and the wolf disappeared the second it happened. That was when I felt something like a truck plow into me, knocking me off my feet, but surprisingly, not injuring me in any way.
I was on the ground, dazed and a bit winded from the sudden jolt. My eyes had been closed from the impact, and when I opened them, I was alone. There was no wolf, no blurry hurling objects, nothing. It was as if none of it had been real.
Sitting up, I shook my head like I was trying to forget a bad dream. What in the world had just happened to me? I rolled myself up onto my hands and knees carefully. Am I dreaming?
“Ariya?” a soft voice came from the path in the direction of Ashley’s apartment.
Please, please, don’t let that be who it sounds like, I prayed.
Struggling, my body refused to cooperate in time for me to get to my feet before the person calling my name came around the bend. My worst fears were confirmed. It was James. Of course he’d be the one to find me like this.
“Ariya, are you all right?” Concern laced his beautiful voice.
I forced myself to chuckle through my embarrassment. “I’m the biggest klutz ever. I’m fine.” A smile came easier than I thought it would.
It wasn’t like I could tell him the truth. I didn’t even know the truth. What would I say? Well, James, a second ago there was a wolf looking like he wanted to attack me, and then two blurry objects came out of nowhere. One hit the wolf and one hit me, which is why I’m on the ground out here. No, he already probably assumed I was crazy after finding me on my hands and knees in the woods in the middle of the night. He didn’t need me confirming it to him.
I finally had the wherewithal to stand. I felt his hands clasp around my arms, helping me up, and my entire body responded. I wasn’t sure what this feeling was. Desire? I couldn’t say that it was a familiar feeling.
He continued helping me until I was fully standing. I pulled away, feeling that if he continued to touch me, I’d do something embarrassing like try to kiss him.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
A perfect-sounding laugh came from him. I was sure my jaw dropped slightly at my amazement that such a sound even existed. “Why are you apologizing?”
I smiled nervously. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
He smiled. “I live in one of the houses past these apartments.” He nodded his head in the direction of my complex.
“You live on Shab Row?”
Shab Row was the only set of houses past our apartment, and it tended to be the wealthy area. The Dean of Kingsbrook lived in one of those houses, and they were some of the oldest but fanciest in Mineral Point. He seemed uncomfortable at my shock.
“My…uh, parents thought it would be best that I had a quiet place for myself. To study.” He shrugged, and I was impressed. Smart and gorgeous. He couldn’t be real, could he?
“Nice. Well, I’d better get going. Thank you for the help.” Walking away now could end all further awkwardness on my part.
“May I escort you home?” He took a step toward me.
Escort me? What century was I in?
“I live in those apartments,” I said, pointing at the lighted area ahead of us. “It’s not far.”
“Well, you did fall once already. Maybe I’ll just walk behind you to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” He grinned, and it was my turn to laugh.
Thankfully, the sky was dark so I hoped it hid the color of my face as I blushed. “Okay, you’re right. Thanks.” It wasn’t far enough to make the effort necessary, but it was still nice to have his company. “How was your first Kingsbrook party?” I asked, wanting to hear his voice again as we walked.
“It has proven to be an interesting evening.”
He smiled down at me, and I turned my face to try to hide the embarrassment his comment caused. This is what I had been hoping to avoid. Teasing was fine, but his presence did something to me I wasn’t used to. Comments I would normally laugh off felt out of the ordinary.
“Yes, well, it’s not every day you get to rescue a clumsy senior on her way home from a party, I guess,” I said sarcastically, rolling my eyes more at myself than at James.
He beamed at me, causing another flip-flop sensation to course through me. This was ridiculous. No man should make me feel this way. Maybe Caroline was right; it had been a while since I’d had a full-blown crush. Maybe I had just forgotten what the reaction was like.
“Hopefully, you don’t make it a habit.”
“Oh, it’s too late for that, the clumsiness is a habit. However, having a stranger find me on my hands and knees in the woods is not, so I can at least try to work on that.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a complete stranger.” He raised his eyebrows at me.
I narrowed my eyes at him jokingly. “We’ll see.”
We were at the stairs leading up to my building when I thought of one important thing. “Could you maybe not mention finding me on the ground?”
He tilted his head curiously at me as if he didn’t understand why I would request something like that.
“I know it would be an awesome story at our next get-together,” I started to explain,”but Caroline tends to be a bit of a mother hen when it comes to me. She can get overly protective, and if she knows I can’t even make it home on my own unscathed, I might not be let out of her sight for a while.” I chuckled and James nodded knowingly.
“Sure. It’ll be our secret. Good night, Ariya.”
His smile was contagious, and my mouth turned up in an over-the-top grin in response. “Thanks, James, for walking me home. Good night.”
I opened my door and shut it quickly. Leaning my head against the door, I tried to wipe the grin that was making my cheeks ache off of my face. I’ll try to play it a bit cooler next time I see him, I tried to convince myself. Yeah, right.
After tossing my keys on the table by the front door, I went to get ready for bed. It was a slow process since my mind was on constant replay of the evening. The encounter in the woods with that animal should have caused me more concern, or at least frightened me. Instead, the giddiness I felt from walking home with James eclipsed any fears I previously had.
Pushing James from my thoughts rather forcefully, my brain focused on the incident with the wolf. What had that been? Had the wolf been toying with me? Was that even possible? Was it the same wolf that the hikers from the news story had encountered? So many questions flooded through my mind that I felt like my head was going to explode.
Besides just the wolf, there was that strange object that had knocked me out of the wolf’s path. I couldn’t think of what in heaven’s name would have been able to do that. Maybe I had been drunk and imagined most of it.
I had just asked James not tell Caroline about finding me on the ground, but what if I didn’t say something and she ended up getting hurt by the wolf thing? ****! I was going to get hell from her for this. My conscience won out after my imagination conjured up more vivid scenes that included Caroline getting attacked because she wasn’t warned. I decided to err on the side of caution and call her.
I left her a voicemail, then pushed the “end” button and put my phone down, lying down and staring at the ceiling. There was a flurry at the front door. I heard it slam shut, followed by the sound of keys hitting the table. Uh-oh, were she and Nick fighting? It would be wrong to eavesdrop. I decided to pretend I was asleep, and then we could just catch up tomorrow. I slowly scooted down in my bed, trying to be quiet. Pulling the covers up close to my chin, I steadied my breathing into longer, heavier sighs.
My door cracked open slowly, and I knew Caroline was checking to make sure I was asleep. Then it closed. I could still hear muffled voices coming from the living room.
“She’s sleeping. He’s overreacting. I can handle this. Just because my father isn’t the best there ever was doesn’t mean I’m not great at what I do. She’s my best friend. Of course I want to keep her safe. It wasn’t a close call.”
“I know, babe, but you just have to go with the team thing. It’s too much for one person right now, no matter who you are.” Nick’s voice was soothing as he tried to calm Caroline from whatever had upset her.
“I think he’s confused about his feelings and he’s taking it out on me…it’s the first time he…”
The rest of the conversation was muddled completely. A door had opened and closed, so that had to mean they went into Caroline’s bedroom.
Sitting up in bed, I tried to process what I’d heard. Keep who safe? Me?
I wanted to knock on her door and ask her what was going on, but with Nick there, I couldn’t, I would have to wait until we were alone. As I lay there planning out the inevitable conversation in my head, my body slowly began shutting down from the eventful evening and I drifted into a restless sleep.
* * *
I was falling. A woman stood above me, one who looked almost like she was me. Her maniacal laughter rang in my ears, as did the scream that was escaping my throat. I fell farther, not hitting anything but stuck in a descent that had my stomach reeling. You should have listened to me when you had the chance.
Protected (Book 1 in the Ariya Adams Trilogy) is out and available now on Amazon!
Find it here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DKCZ9S8/
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