Rachel Van Dyken


  “Can you hear me? Kiersten?” His voice was so close, maybe if I closed my eyes it would feel more real. I reached up to touch him but all I could feel was air. He wasn’t there. He was gone.

  So it really happened.

  I blinked a few times and tried to focus on what was in front of me. It looked like him, but he was standing too far away. Why was I lying on the ground?

  “Come back to me.” His mouth moved as he spoke softly. “Not like this, Kiersten. Not like this, baby.” His light blue eyes flared with need. “Everything is going to be just fine. I promise.”

  But it wasn’t fine. I knew it. He knew it.

  He was gone — and I was hallucinating.

  I’d lost the love of my life — my best friend. How many times could people experience loss before they died too? Before heartache consumed them? Memories flooded my brain, memories of my parents, memories of him playing football, memories of all the notes he gave me.

  Our first kiss.

  Our final time together.

  And then the hospital.

  We hadn’t been given enough time — and I hated God for taking everyone from me. I hated that in the end, I would always be alone to mourn the loss of those I loved.

  I reached for his face one last time. This time my fingers came into contact with warm skin. It was all a dream. Well, if it was a dream, I was going to enjoy the way his smile lit up the room. His lips touched my forehead. I closed my eyes and prayed for God to take me too.

  Because I knew the moment I woke up, I’d have to say goodbye all over again, and this time I wasn’t sure I’d ever heal from the experience of that one word leaving my lips. Goodbye — whoever invented that word should burn in Hell.

  Chapter One

  Weakness is just pain leaving the body

  Three months previous


  I repeated the same mantra over and over again until I thought I was going to lose my mind. It wasn’t real. I was having the nightmare again. It wasn’t real.

  Never a good sign when you wake yourself up because you’re screaming so loud. Footsteps neared the door and then it burst open, revealing my roommate, you know, the one I just met a few hours ago.

  “Are you okay?” She took a tentative step through the door and crossed her arms. “I heard screaming.”

  Right. I was a freak. I wanted a fresh start, and what did I get? A gold star for traumatizing my roommate, the only friendly face I’d met since arriving at the University of Washington.

  “Um, yeah.” I managed to keep my voice from shaking. “I know it’s weird but I still have night terrors.” At the look of disbelief on her face, I added quickly, “But only when I’m really stressed out.” And when I’m on heavy medication, but I left that part out.

  “Oh.” She licked her lips and looked back out into the hallway. “Do you want me to sleep on the floor or something? I mean, I will if you’re scared.”

  Bless her southern hospitality-filled heart. “No.” I smiled. “I’m good. I hope I didn’t scare you.”

  “Yeah, well…” Lisa waved me off. “I didn’t really like that lamp in my room anyways.”

  “My screaming broke a lamp?” I cringed.

  “No.” She shook her head. “My fall broke the lamp. Seems jumping out of your bunk bed at one in the morning’s a contact sport. My lamp being the main target. No worries.” She sighed. “It didn’t suffer. It shattered on contact with the floor. And then again after I slipped on the teddy bear that also fell. And that’s great since it broke my fall onto the floor, making it so I escape with two faint bruises.”

  I covered my face with my hands. “Holy crap! I’m so sorry!”

  “Nah, it’s fine. I’m a walking accident.” She laughed. “But if you plan on screaming all night, I’m taking the floor. My lamp killing days are behind me.”

  Smiling, I nodded. “Sure. I just… I don’t want you to—”

  “Stop apologizing.” Lisa’s smile was warm and inviting “Oh, and I sleepwalk so if you wake up to me standing over you, try not to punch me in the face.”

  “Wow, we’re sure a fun pair.”

  She grabbed a blanket from my bed and threw it onto the floor. “You know those little comment sections in the housing part of registration?”


  “I swear it’s a setup to put all of us weirdos together.”

  I yawned.

  “I need a pillow,” Lisa announced. “I’ll be right back. No more screaming. Close your eyes, and in the morning we’ll go boy-hunting. Dream about that.”


  “Uh…” Lisa tucked her brown hair behind her ear. “That is, unless you’re interested in girls. I mean, that’s cool if you bat for the other team, I was just sayin’—”

  “No, no, no.” A weak laugh squeezed past my lips. Did I look like I batted for the other team? “No, nothing like that. I’ve just never had a boyfriend.”

  “You poor soul!” Was she serious? “How did you survive?”

  “Netflix, Johnny Depp, books. I powered through.” I shrugged. “Trust me, if you grew up in the town I did, you wouldn’t have dated either.”

  “Oh yeah? Why?” She held up her hand really quick and ran out of the room. When she came back she had her pillow in hand. Throwing it onto the floor she sat with her legs crossed and yawned. “Okay, you may continue.”

  “Guys…” I lay on my left side so I could fully face her. “I didn’t date them because my town was so dang small that if I even sneezed in the wrong direction my mom said bless you before I even got it out. I mean, the one time I got a bad grade on my report card, it made the newspaper.”

  “Huh? What the hell kind of town does that?”

  “One that literally documents how many people visit it during the high season.”

  “High season?” Lisa asked.

  “Tourist season. When people go wine-tasting. Last year we had five hundred, which is more people than our entire town put together.”

  “This information makes me depressed,” Lisa announced. “So no cute boys then?”

  “Mayor’s son was cute.”

  “Oh, that’s cool!” she gushed.

  “Yup, the quarterback of the football team thought so too.”

  “Did that one make the news?” She cringed.

  I wrinkled my nose and nodded. “It did. Along with my bad grade.”

  “I would have taken the bad grade.”

  “Agreed.” I laughed. It felt good that someone could empathize with how bad it royally sucked to be the center of attention. Tension slowly left my body.

  “Well, we’ll have to rectify this situation immediately.” She licked her lips. “I know plenty of guys. I met at least ten at orientation this morning. One of them had tattoos.” She sighed longingly. “I’m a sucker for tattoos.”

  “But they cover your skin.” I pointed out. “And a tattoo is forever. I mean, don’t you think it’s kind of trashy?”

  “Who are you?” She squinted. “Apparently your small town was built underneath a rock.”

  “Um…” I laughed. “My point exactly.”

  “Trust me, the only reason you don’t like tattoos is because you’ve never seen them spread over a hot body. You’ll change real fast when you see that yummy goodness on a six pack. Hell, last time I saw a shirtless guy with tattoos I asked if I could lick him.”

  “What did he say?”

  Lisa sighed. “Yes…” Then she shrugged. “We dated for a week, then I left him for greener pastures.”

  “Bigger tattoo?”

  “How’d you know!” She threw her head back and laughed. “I was kind of kno
wn for being the school slut, but it was better than not being known at all.”

  I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but I kept my mouth shut, especially considering I’d never even kissed a guy before. Too embarrassed to admit my inexperience, I just shrugged. “Well, that’s what college is for. It’s a fresh start, right?”

  “Right.” Her eyes flickered away from mine for a brief moment. Her smile fell from her face. “Well, at any rate, we should get some sleep if we’re going boy-hunting tomorrow.”

  “Right.” I yawned again. “And thanks, Lisa, for checking on me.”

  “What type of roommate would I be if I didn’t come running?”

  “One who didn’t kill lamps and wake up with two bruises?”

  “Damn lamp,” she muttered. “Night, Kiersten.”


  Chapter Two

  If it looks like a rat, smells like a rat, and talks like a rat, it’s probably a freaking rat.


  “Name?” The guy at Registration didn’t look up, merely paused as his fingers hovered over the iPad. I’d woken up at seven so I could make early registration at eight. Tables were lined outside the Student Center in prison-like fashion. At least twenty upperclassman stood in front of the tables with packets and bored expressions.

  “Kiersten,” I answered.

  He let out an irritated sigh. “There are over thirty-five thousand students on this campus, and you want me to look you up by your first name, Kiersten?”

  “Sorry. Uh… Rowe. Kiersten Rowe.”

  He typed away. “Well, Rowe Kiersten Rowe, it looks like you’re registered for nineteen credits and have yet to decide on a major.”

  What was he? A profiler? “That’s right.” I leaned back on my heels and cleared my throat. He still didn’t look up.

  “Hmm…” His hands moved fluidly over the screen. “Alright, I’m sending your schedule to your school email.” He set the iPad down and grabbed a packet. “Campus map, mailbox number, student email, everything you need is in this package. If you have any questions, you can ask your RA.”

  I hoped he meant resident advisor, because if he meant something else I had no idea what he was talking about.

  “Okay.” I took the packet he thrust in my face. “What about my student ID card?”

  “Next!” He lifted his head and shot me another irritated glance.

  “Excuse me.” I stood my ground. “Where do I get my student ID card?”

  His shoulders slumped. “Look, Kiersten, I have a line of a few hundred students, I said everything you need to know is in your packet, so look in your packet. If you have questions, ask your RA. We…” He pointed at himself then at me. “…are finished here.”

  What the hell was his problem?

  I wasn’t sure if I was embarrassed or just irritated. Cursing, I held the packet to my chest and stomped off. I turned around to send him one last seething glare and ran smack dab into a tree.

  Or at least it felt like a tree.

  But trees weren’t warm.

  And they didn’t have one, two, three, four, six, Good Lord, eight? Eight packs? Furthermore, had I actually been feeling said person’s eight pack? And, dear God, I was counting. I had touched each muscle. And great, my hand was still firmly placed against the guy’s stomach.

  I jerked my hand back and closed my eyes.

  “Were you just counting my abs?” His voice sounded amused. It also sounded like a movie star voice, the type that makes you want to jump into the TV screen. It was deep, strong, and had a slight accent I couldn’t place. British? Scottish?

  I took my lower lip between my teeth and thought about what to say. Well, there really was no way out of it. I nodded. “Sorry, I just…” I shouldn’t have looked. If I could go back in time, I would have. I had no idea that one look would devastate me. Weeks from now I would regret that one look, for one reason and one reason only.

  His eyes held my ruin.

  “Weston.” He held out his hand. “And you are?”

  Screwed. “Kiersten.” I clutched the packet tighter against my chest. He squinted at my hands then looked at his.

  “You have a germ thing?”

  “Huh? What? No?”

  “You have a disease?” His hand was still between us, it was getting more awkward by the minute. Just put it away!

  “Um, no.”

  “Good.” He moved his hand from safe territory, and suddenly he was touching me, well, touching my packet, but I could have sworn I felt every bit of his heat as he slowly peeled it from my grip and freed up my hands. “Now,” he held out his hand again, “where were we?”

  What the heck was wrong with me? It wasn’t that I didn’t want to shake his hand. It was just that I was embarrassed and I wanted to leave, and I wasn’t sure if he was just being nice to me to be nice or — wow, I needed therapy.

  Clearing my throat, I reached over and shook his hand. At his smirk, I panicked. He clenched my hand within his and looked down at our joining, then mumbled something under his breath. I felt the loss when he finally released my fingers.

  “See?” He handed back my packet. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?”

  “No.” I swallowed and my eyes darted across the crowded lawn. I seriously couldn’t stare at him in the face; that was how gorgeous he was. I’d never seen such a good-looking guy in real life before. Sure, I’d seen them on magazines and movies, but this guy… He was living, breathing, walking sex. And considering I had no experience in that department, I was putting up every wall I could think of in order to remember to breathe.

  His eyes were a pale blue, his hair a golden blond that was a little too long and curled by his ears. And his smile. Well, his smile would probably haunt me for the rest of my life. It was easy, and his dimples only made it worse. And then there was his smell. A mixture of some sort of cinnamon and something else I couldn’t really put my finger on. It irritated me how easy it seemed for him to smile, as if nothing was wrong in the world when everything felt like it inside. He wanted to shake my hand and know my name and I wanted to get the hell out of there and sit in my room, preferably rocking back and forth in a corner until my anti-depressants decided to kick in to high gear.

  “So,” he said with a chuckle. “We go from you touching my abs, straight to insulting me by not shaking my hand, and then to daydreaming. That sound about right?”

  “Oh my gosh.” I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s my first day, and I’m just… nervous.” There, that sounded good, not at all like I was seconds away from having a minor freak out.

  “Let me help?”

  “But I don’t know you,” I blurted.

  “Sure you do.” Somehow he maneuvered himself around me so that his arm was resting on my shoulder and we were walking back toward my dorm. Holy crap. This is how girls were taken advantage of. Panicking, I searched the lawn for Lisa, but she was nowhere to be found.

  “No.” I dug my heels into the ground. “I, uh, I need to find my roommate and my ID card! I have to grab my ID card. Well, first I need to find my RA…” I sounded like a lost kid at the park. Funny, because most of the time I felt that way, lost, like a missing puzzle piece that forgot it was a part of the rest of the puzzle. The outcast, the loner the—

  “—I believe,” he said, smirking, “that I said I’d help you.”

  “I don’t need that kind of help,” I whispered.

  “Huh?” He stopped walking and then burst out laughing. “Holy shit, I think I may love you.”

  Heart meet stomach.

  He kept laughing and pulled me tighter to him. Well, at least my uncle wouldn’t have to worry about paying for college. I was like ten minutes away from being taken. Like in the movie, Taken, only I didn’t have a bad ass dad to come save me. My heart clenched again.

  “I’m not going to take advantage of you,” Weston said. “No offense, but you look way too innocent for my tastes, which you agai
n proved when you wrongfully assumed I wanted to help myself into your pants.”

  My face erupted in flames.

  “Also…” We kept walking. “You’re a freshman. I don’t do freshmen, as in, I don’t date them. Hell, I don’t usually even help them, but you did almost knock me over, and regardless of how much you deny it, you were counting my abs—”

  “I wasn’t—”

  “You were.” He sighed wistfully. “I watched your mouth move, one, two, three. It’s eight by the way, an eight-pack. I work out a lot.”

  “Great,” I said through clenched teeth.

  “Aw, Lamb, don’t be embarrassed.” He stopped and released me.


  “Pure.” He smiled. “And lost.” Shrugging, he pointed to my dorm. “Like a little lamb.”

  “Well, thanks for the walk back to my dorm.” I brushed past him, but he grabbed my wrist.

  “Don’t you want to talk to the RA about the ID card?”

  “Yeah, I’m going to go get her right now.” I jerked free. “So, thanks for… everything.” I was redefining the meaning of socially awkward.

  He licked his full lips and smiled again. “Okay, you go ask her.”

  “Okay.” I stumbled backward, almost tripping on my own feet, and made my way up the stairs to the dorm.

  Once inside, I could feel him still staring at me.

  I turned around.

  He was grinning.

  I waved.

  He waved back.

  Seriously? What kind of sick game was this?

  Muttering a curse, I read through the different floors and located the RA’s room. Sixth floor. Of course. I went to the stairs and slowly made my way up.

  By the time I reached the sixth floor I was ready to forgo the entire ID card in favor of a nap. One of the side effects of my medicine. Sometimes they made me sleepy. Other times I had such vivid dreams it was like starring in Alice in Wonderland

  With a groan, I forced my feet to take me to the end of the hall. Room 666. That had to be a joke, right? I knocked twice on the door.

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