by Rachel Van Dyken
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.
Copyright © 2013 RACHEL VAN DYKEN
Cover Art designed by Laura Heritage
Whoever told me life was easy — lied. It’s hard. It sucks. The crazy thing is — nobody has the guts to admit the truth. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a secret. Everyone has a story that needs to be told. Hurt is everywhere, as humans we practically drown in its essence, yet we all pretend like it doesn’t exist. We make believe that everything is fine, when really, everything within us screams in outrage. Our soul pleads for us to be honest at least once in our lives. It begs of us to tell one person. It forces us to become vulnerable to that one person and the very second that we do, everything seems better.
For a moment, life isn’t as hard as it seems. Effortless. It’s effortless, and then the gauntlet falls.
When I met Nixon I had no idea what life had in store for me. In my wildest dreams, I could have never imagined this.
“Everything…” He swallowed and looked away for a brief second before grabbing my hand and kissing it. “Everything is about to change.”
“I can feel you breathing down my neck, Trace.” Grandpa gripped the steering wheel and gave me a weak smile before he reached back and patted my hand.
Yup, patted my hand.
As if that’s going to make me feel any less nervous.
I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths trying to concentrate on the excitement of my situation, not the fear. I refused to be scared just because it was new.
I mean, sure I’d never ridden in an airplane before last night, but it wasn’t as if I was freaking out… yet.
I missed my dogs and everything about our ranch in Wyoming. When my ailing grandma suggested I enter the contest, I obeyed to make her happy — anything to distract me from her illness. Besides, it’s everyone’s dream to go to Eagle Elite, but your chances of getting in are slim to none. One company did a study and said your chances were higher than that of your body morphing into that of a whale.
Guess that made me a big, giant, fat whale, because I got in. I’m pretty sure the company did it as a joke, but still.
Out of millions of applicants, they drew my number, my name. So fear, it really wasn’t an option at this point. Going to Eagle for my freshman year of college meant that I was basically set for life. I would be placed in a career, provided for in every way possible. Given opportunities people dreamt of.
Sadly, in this world, it’s all about who you know, and my grandpa, bless his heart, all he knows is the ranch and being a good grandpa. So I’m doing this. I’m doing it for me and I’m doing it for him.
“Is that it?” Grandpa pointed, snapping me out of my pep talk. I rolled down my window and peered out.
“It… uh, it says E.E. on the gate,” I mumbled, knowing full well that I was staring at a steel gate that would have made any prison proud. A man stepped out of the small booth near the entrance and waved us down. As he leaned over the car I noticed a gun hidden under his jacket. Why did they need guns?
“Name,” he demanded.
Grandpa smiled. He would smile. I shook my head as he proceeded to give him the speech, the same one he’d been giving all our neighbors for the past few months. “You see my granddaughter, Trace.” He pointed at me. I bit my lip to keep myself from smiling. “She got into this fancy school, won the annual Elite lottery! Can you believe it? So I’m here to drop her off.” How did grandpa always stay so completely at ease all the time? Maybe it was because he was always packing a gun too, but still. He and grandma were the coolest grandparents a girl could ask for.
I swallowed the tears burning at the back of my throat. It should have been him and Grandma, but she died of cancer about six months ago, a week after I found out about the school.
They were my world, Grandpa and Grandma. Being raised by your grandparents isn’t all that bad, not when you have or had grandparents like mine. Grandpa taught me how to ride horses and milk cows, and Grandma could bake the best apple pie in the state. She won at every state fair using the exact same recipe.
My parents had died in a car crash when I was really young. I don’t remember much except that the night they died was also the night I met my grandparents for the first time. I was six. Grandpa was dressed in a suit. He knelt down and said something in Italian, and he and Grandma took me away in their black Mercedes. They moved their whole lives for me, saying it wasn’t good for a little girl to live in the city. Chicago hadn’t been that bad, at least from what I remember. Which wasn’t much.
I gave grandpa a watery smile as he reached across the console and grasped my hand within his large worn one. He’d sacrificed everything for me, so I was going to do this for him, for grandma. It may sound silly but being an only child I felt this immense need to take care of him now that grandma was gone, and the only way I could see myself doing that was getting a good job and making him proud. I wasn’t sure about his retirement, or about anything, and I wanted to be. I wanted to take care of him, like he took care of me. He was my rock, and now it was my turn to be his.
Grandpa winked and squeezed my hand again. He was always so perceptive. I could tell he knew I was thinking about grandma because he nodded his head and pointed at his own heart, and then pointed at mine as if to say, She’s in your heart. She’s in mine. We’ll be okay.
“You aren’t from around here are you?” The man interrupted our exchange and directed the question at me.
He laughed. “Sir? Hmm… I have to say I like the sound of that. Alright, you check out. Drive straight down the road for 1.5 miles. Parking is on the right and the dorms will be directly in front of the parking lot. You can drop her off there.”
He slapped the top of the car and the gate suddenly opened in front of us.
My heart was in my throat. Large trees lined the driveway as grandpa drove the rental toward the dorms.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for what I was seeing. The buildings were huge. Everything was built in old stone and brick. I mean, I’d seen pictures, but they did not even come close to reality. The dorms looked like ritzy hotels.
Another security guard approached the car and motioned for grandpa to turn it off. My mouth gaped open as I stepped out of the car and leaned my head way back so I could look up at the twelve-story building.
“New girl’s here,” came a voice from behind me. I flipped around and my mouth dropped open again.
“So squeaky clean and innocent. Like a little lamb, right, Chase?” The guy tilted his head. Dark wavy hair fell across his forehead; he had a lip piercing and was dressed in ripped jeans and a tight t-shirt.
I backed away, like the little lamb/whale that I was.
My grandpa stepped forward protectively as he reached inside his jacket, probably for the gun that was usually present. I’m sure he was just trying to freak the guys out. “A welcoming committee? This place sure is nice.” Anyone could see the guys standing in front of us were not here to welcome us and certainly weren’t part of any committee, but Grandpa was making a point, marking me as his to protect. I stepped behind him and swallowed at the dryness in my throat.
The guy with the lip ring stepped forward and then squinted his eyes in Grandpa’s direction. “Do I know you?”
Grandpa laughed. “Know many farmers out in Wyoming?”
The guy scratched his head giving me a lovely view of his golden tanned abs as his hands reached above his head. I swallowed and grabbed my grandpa’s arm.
The guy named Chase smirked and hit the other guy on the back. He glared in my direction and then stepped right by me reaching out to lift my chin, closing my once-gaping mouth.
“Much better,” he whispered. “We’d hate for our charity case to choke on an insect on her first day.” His eyes flickered to Grandpa’s and then back to mine before walking away.
They disappeared behind the dorm. I could feel my face heat with embarrassment. I didn’t have much experience with guys. Okay, it was safe to say my first and only kiss was with Chad Thomson and it was awful. But still, something about those guys warned me that they weren’t good news.
“I don’t like those boys. They remind me of… well, that doesn’t matter.” Grandpa scratched his head then went to the trunk of the car to pull out my few things. I was still trying to get over the fact that I had embarrassed myself when someone walked up to us with a clipboard.
“No parents allowed in the dorms. Sorry. Rules.” She popped her gum and winked at my grandpa. Was she flirting with him? What the hell kind of school was this? The guys have piercings and treat people like dirt, and girls flirt with old men?
My grandpa shot me a concerned look and sighed, placing his hands against the rental car as if trying to brace himself for the emotional turmoil of the day. “You sure you’ll be okay here?”
I sighed heavily and looked up at the intimidating building. This was why I had applied. I needed to do this for him, for us.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped away from him and gave them my most confident smile. “I’ll be fine, Grandpa, but I’ll miss you so much.” Warm tears streamed rapidly down my face as I stepped into his embrace.
“I have some things for you. I know…” Grandpa coughed and wiped at a few of his own stray tears. “I know she would have liked you to have them, Trace.”
Wordlessly, he walked away from me and pulled out a small box from the back of the car and handed it to me. “Don’t open it until you’re in your dorm. Oh sweetheart, I’m going to miss you so much.”
I hugged him again and closed my eyes, memorizing the way his spicy scent filled my nostrils with all the comforts of home. “I’ll miss you more.”
“Not possible,” he said with a hoarse voice. “Not possible, sweetheart.”
He released me and folded some cash into my hand. I looked down into my clenched fist where a few hundred dollar bills were rolled with a rubber band. “I can’t take this.” I tried to give it back, but he put his hands up and chuckled.
“Nope, your grandma would roll over in her grave if she knew I was dropping you off at some fancy school without an emergency fund. You keep it. You hide it in your pillow or something, okay?”
“Grandpa, we don’t live in the Depression anymore. I don’t need to go hiding money under my mattress or in my pillowcase.”
He narrowed his eyes and laughed. “Just keep it safe.”
I hugged grandpa one last time. He sighed heavily into my shoulder. “Be safe grandpa. Don’t let the cows out and keep milking the goats. I really will miss you.”
“And I you… just, do me a favor.” He pulled away and looked into my eyes as I nodded. “Be careful. There are people out there who…” He cursed. Grandpa rarely cursed.
“What is it?” Okay, he was starting to scare me.
He looked behind me and pressed his lips together in frustration. “Nothing. Never mind. Just be careful, okay, sweetheart?”
“Okay.” I kissed his cheek.
Grandpa grinned and got into the car. I waved as he drove off, then turned back toward the girl with the clipboard.
Okay.” I took a soothing breath and faced my future. “So where to?”
“Name?” she asked, sounding bored.
The girl smirked and shook her head as if my name was the most amusing thing she’d heard all day. Was everyone rude here?
“It’s your lucky day,” she announced, motioning toward the building. “You are in the United States.”
I looked around just to make sure I wasn’t getting punked. “Um, yeah, I know. I’m American.”
“Gee.” She put the pen in her mouth and sighed heavily. “I didn’t know that. You seemed foreign to me. Where did you say you were from? Wyoming? Do they even have electricity there?”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but she interrupted me… again.
“I know where we are, New Girl. Rooms are themed based on countries. Don’t ask me why, it’s just how it’s done. Your room is the United States Room. Go make yourself at home, oh and welcome to Elite.” She eyed me from head to toe twice before finally spinning around and returning to the building.
How was I supposed to get all my stuff in the building? Wasn’t there some sort of welcome packet or directions or something?
I vaguely remembered some information that had come in the mail the week before. It had my student ID card amongst other things. I rummaged through my purse and found the packet and quickly began scanning it for the schedule.
“Are you lost?” a deep voice asked from behind me. I turned around and quickly came face to face with the same guy I’d seen before. Only this time he had three friends with him, not one. Lucky me.
“Nope. Apparently I live in the United States.” I gave him my best smile and tried to lift my heavy suitcase with my free hand. It didn’t budge and I almost fell over. Awesome.
“I’m Nixon.” He moved to stand in front of me. His icy stare did weird things to my body. I’m pretty sure what I was experiencing was called a panic attack. Every part of my body felt hot and then cold as if I was going to explode any minute.
“Tracey, but everyone calls me Trace.” I held out my hand.
He stared at it like I was diseased.
I quickly pulled it back and wiped it on my jeans.
“What?” I took a step back.
The guy from before named Chase left the waiting group and approached us. “He’s right. As cute as you are, Farm Girl, someone needs to tell you the rules.”
“Can it be fast?” I asked with an overwhelming sense of irritation. I was tired, jet-lagged, and about five seconds away from crying again. I’d never done public school, let alone a private Elite school where the guys were tattooed, pierced, and better looking than Abercrombie models.
“You hear that, Chase?” Nixon laughed. “She likes it fast.”
“Pity.” Chase winked. “I’d love to give it to her slow.”
I gulped. The two guys behind them laughed hysterically and high-fived one another.
“The rules.” Chase began circling me slowly, making me feel like one of those carcasses the vultures fed on. Fantastic.
“No speaking to the Elect, unless you’ve been asked to speak to them.”
“Who are the—”
“—Nope. You’ve already broken a rule. I’m speaking, New Girl.” Chase smirked. “Geez, Nixon, this one’s going to be hard to break in.”
“They always are,” Nixon replied, lifting my chin with his hand. “But I think I’ll enjoy this one.”
Okay. It was clear someone had just dropped me into a horror movie where I was going to be offed at any minute.
“If an Elect talks to you, never make eye contact. Because, technically you don’t exist. You’re just a pathetic excuse for a human being, and at this school, you’re a real tragedy. You see, while one of the Elect is out running for president and basically ruling the free world, you’ll be lucky to be working for
Furious, I glared at him, ignoring their second rule. “Is that all?”
“No,” Nixon answered for Chase. This time his touch was smooth as he caressed my arm. I tried to jerk away. His face lit up with a smile, and honestly, it was like staring at a fallen angel. Nixon was gorgeous. He was an ass, but he was a gorgeous ass. “You feel this?” His hand continued moving up my arm until he reached my shoulder, and then his hand moved to my neck and his thumb grazed my trembling lips. “Memorize it now, because as of this moment, you can’t touch us. We are untouchable. If you as much as sneeze in our direction, if you as much breathe the same air in my atmosphere, I will make your life hell. This touch, what you feel against your skin, will be the only time you feel another human being as powerful as me near you. So like I said, feel it, remember it, and maybe one day, your brain will do you the supreme favor of forgetting what it felt like to have someone like me touching you. Then, and only then, will you be able to be happy with some mediocre boyfriend and pathetic life.”
A few tears slipped down my cheek before I could stop them. I knew I needed to appear strong in front of Nixon and Chase. I just… I didn’t have it in me, not when he would say such cruel things. I choked back a sob and stared them down, willing the rest of the tears to stay in. I didn’t care who these guys were. They had no right to treat me like that, though it still stung. I so desperately wanted to fit in.
He jerked his hand away from my face. “Pathetic. Are you going to cry? Really?” Nixon scowled and held out his hand to Chase. Chase handed him some Purell.
“Don’t want to get farm on my hands, you understand.” Nixon smiled such a mean smile that I literally had to clench my hands at my sides to keep from punching him in the face and getting expelled.
“Don’t even think about it, New Girl. You touch me, I tell the dean, who just so happens to be Phoenix’s dad. We control the teachers because, guess what? My dad pays for everything. Now, if you have any questions about what we talked about here, please direct them to Tex and Phoenix, kay?”