My stomach plunged to my feet.
Three steps earlier, I was already tasting the daiquiris I’d be drinking that night and the song “Copacabana” was on repeat, blasting in my mind. I was leaving my last exam of my sophomore year at Hillcrest University, and we were celebrating that night. The whole gang—myself, my roommate, and Wanker, the guy who loved my roommate, but she was too daft to realize it.
But once I left that classroom, I froze.
I took those three steps from the door, just clearing it, when it shut behind me. My butt got a swift whack, not that I was feeling it. All of that registered in the back of my mind. I was too transfixed across the hallway where the student lounge was located. That was the con of having classrooms attached to the social hub of the campus. The person I was staring at, smack dab in the center of the news report, was me.
Not me, me, but me nonetheless.
It was the old me, when I was Jordan Emory, and that girl looked different from how I was now. Current me had short brown, slightly golden-blonde hair. My hairstylist had come heavily recommended, straight from the federal government. But the girl on the television screen still had her long jet-black locks. I needed to move aside the frozen anvil to appreciate how good my hair looked, but damn, it did. I’d been a little bit of a hottie back then, and I never knew it. My nose wrinkled. What a waste. I should’ve taken classes in self-esteem. A lot of problems would’ve been avoided, but I hadn’t. Old me was broken and spineless.
New me was spunky and fierce with extra emphasis on the spine.
Jo, not Jordan. My new nickname was from my new full name of Joslyn Keen. There was that other fact.
Jake Monroe was weaving his way toward me.
My brain needed another two seconds to fully register what was happening. I was on the TV—old me, not new me—and Jake was coming my way. Jake, whom I had been in love with seven months ago, had broken me, like really broken me. I had been in a puddle on my bathroom floor, crying and sniffling with soggy Kleenex, wearing a bathrobe, next to an old pizza box and a box of wine.
It was that Jake.
I couldn’t compute. I just couldn’t.
He wove his way around a group of students, a very bright, fake smile plastered on my face. It felt alien-like, but hey, I was going this route. I felt like I was in a twilight zone anyway.
“Oh, hey…there”—I gave his arm a slight punch—“Jake.” This was awkward. We hadn’t talked in seven months. I should be doing something else, not being nice to him, but at that moment, my brain wasn’t working.
And I wasn’t stopping. I was making it worse.
I raised my hand and pretended to shoot him with my finger. “How are you doing…there?”
His head tilted to the side, and his grin slipped a little, morphing into is-she-nuts territory. “I’m good. How are you?” He was holding a textbook to his chest and leaned forward, motioning with it to the coffee cup in my hand. “Hitting that early today?”
He thought I was drunk. I wish.
“No.” I cleared my throat and glanced behind me to my classroom. “Just finished my last exam of the year. You? What are you doing?”
“Looking for you.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows shot up.
As he started talking, my gaze slid past his shoulders to the television mounted on the wall in the lounge. My face was still there. There were words scrolling across the bottom of the screen along with old pictures of my hometown and other pictures that I didn’t want to register. I knew Jake wouldn’t recognize me, but I scooted around, so he had to turn with me. I tried concentrating on him. Whatever that was in the background, it could wait. I had a lie life to live here.
Occupation: College Juniorish (Might be a senior now.)
Looks: Wide shoulders. Trim waist. Washboard abs. Nicely muscled thighs. Wavy brunette hair with speckles of sunlight. Strong jawline. Dark eyes that could make me groan and sigh at the same time. I had lost many afternoons just gazing into them. He had a young-looking face with a smooth complexion. He was gorgeous—too gorgeous at times.
My history with him: I could already feel the condemnation. Mental assessment turned off.
He was saying, “…Susan, do you think?”
“She’s up for a promotion with the newspaper. There are two spots, but only one—”
No, no, no. I knew where he was going with this, and I could only shake my head. “But only one is getting the full-time promotion.”
He paused, a side grin appearing. “How did you know that?”
“Do you not know who the other person is?”
I was waiting. His friend Susan was my nemesis—or so I heard. Because of my history with Jake, she hated me. Well, hate was a strong word. Loathed was a more correct summary of the situation, but her reasons were twofold.
Here’s the condemnation part—I was the other woman. Jake had a girlfriend when he and I started our fling in the first semester of this year, but I didn’t know he had a girlfriend. I heard, along with many others, that they broke up. I thought Jake was free and clear. And no, Susan wasn’t the girlfriend. Susan was best friends with the girlfriend, Tara Moore. Susan was doing her best-friend duties, which was hating me. And the other reason she hated me was the other part of my current conversation with Jake.
My roommate and best friend, Erica Rouche, was the other one up for the job promotion. They both started as interns freshman year, then were hired on as junior writers. When the senior writers went on strike, Erica and Susan got promoted again. Things were touch and go for a while, but they both proved they could do their jobs well. The job opening was another step up, into full-time employment. It was a big deal for someone still in college.
And Jake was asking me to…what? I wasn’t following that part.
“The other person?” He scrunched up his adorable eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“Huh?” He scratched behind his ear. “That’s why I’m asking you. Do you think you could come with me?”
His shoulders bunched up. His arms moved back, and his hands slid into his pockets. The book he was holding moved, so it was pressed between his arm and his chest, right where his rib cage was and right where I knew he had a tattoo.
I almost groaned. I was reminded that not only was he the last guy I loved, but he was also the last guy I slept with. Remembering how that tattoo, a tribal tattoo positioned to make him look like a piece of art, was on his toned body—yes, I needed to get laid. By someone else.
My eyes snapped back to his. “Erica. It’s Erica.”
“The other person is Erica. The other person who Susan is competing against for that promotion is my roommate, my best friend.”
“Oh, shit.” His hand moved to cup the side of his face. He stared down at me. “I didn’t even think about that. That is a wrinkle in my chances for asking you on a date.”
“Exactly.” My head bobbed up and down. “Don’t tell me who got the promotion already. I don’t want to know. I still have to be excited or pissed when Erica tells me the news. That’s my”—wait a minute—“job.” I fixed him with a look. What had he said? “Date?”
He was waiting, watching me, and his head moved up and down in a slow nod. “Yeah. This is going to be awkward now, huh? Susan got the promotion.” He gritted his teeth and stepped back. His head moved back, too, as if waiting for an explosion from me.
None came. I was still dumbfounded by the date comment. All that vanished in two seconds, and my brain was back to normal. I took a step back and pretended to do a double take. “Are you talking to the right person
“Oh no.” He looked down.
“Oh yes,” I corrected. He looked back up, and I shook my head. “You’re asking me on a date? Did I hear that right?”
“A date?” I needed to make sure.
“Yes. A date.” He was much more timid this time.
I clipped my head from side to side. “This is the first time you’ve had the balls to talk to me in seven months and you’re asking me out? Do you remember the last time we spoke?” And speaking of, I should’ve ripped him a new one when he first said hello. I blamed the news for that blip.
“Technically,” he lifted a hand up. “We didn’t speak that time.”
“You’re right.” I snorted. “Because you had your tongue shoved down your ex-girlfriend’s throat. But no, I have to correct myself, because she wasn’t your ex at all. She was still your girlfriend.”
“I’m sorry. I really am. Things are over now with Tara and me. We’re done. I mean it.”
His face got red, and I knew he had more apologies ready to spew, but I didn’t want to hear them. As fast as my anger rose, it faded, too. It still burned, what he did, but I’d process that later. I was more concerned about Erica.
“No, Jake. Go away.”
When he didn’t, I was the one to walk away. I didn’t want to hear anymore, but he got in front of me and held his arms out. “Just hear me out. I’m not asking you out on a date. Although, full disclosure here, I wouldn’t mind if we went that route, but,” he raised his voice when he saw that I was about to give him the middle finger, “I was hoping to ask a favor from you.”
“A favor?” My eyebrows arched up at that one.
“Susan is having a celebration at Sids tonight, and,” he hesitated, “Tara is going to be there…and I was wondering if you’d go with me tonight.”
“You want to use me?”
“What?” His eyes got big a second later. “No! No. Well…yeah. Kinda.”
I checked out. This conversation was going nowhere. I wasn’t going to date the guy who almost shattered me, and I wasn’t going to let him use me to get back at his now-ex-girlfriend. I just didn’t have the energy to vocalize all of that to him, especially when I could still see my old face on the television behind him. Although, seeing my face there and my old name shouldn’t have been such a shock.
Three years ago, my face was everywhere. The media followed me anywhere I went. I was hounded, hunted, and harassed. I tried to finish out my last year of high school, but couldn’t. I quit halfway, finished up my GED, and the FBI helped me hide—or I should say that a federal agent helped me hide. I wasn’t officially in the Witness Protection Program because I didn’t qualify. There was no real threat to my well-being, just the media hounding me. But, even if there had been, I would’ve refused.
I wanted to make my own decisions. I just needed help with changing my name and my looks. I still looked like my old self, but there were enough changes that people wouldn’t put two and two together.
Besides the new hairdo, I had put on some pounds. The old me had been too skinny, ribs and hip bones sticking out everywhere. This me was healthy. I was toned, tanned, and ready for action. I was in shape, too, but the biggest change were my eyes. Nothing surgically had been done to them, but I ordered colored contacts by the bundle. My eyes were now like Jake’s, a chocolaty brown. My old eyes were a myriad of all different colors—blue, green, hazel, brown, and some amber mixed in. I was mostly hazel, but the other colors had been enough to make people stop for a second and third look. My eye color was also part of the reason I’d needed to go into hiding.
My foster father was bewitched by my eyes. On a good day, I was a goddess to him. On a bad day—and there had been a lot of them—it was as if I had been sent by Lucifer himself.
Everything went kaput on one of those bad days.
Jake was frowning at me.
Oh, yes. Date. Erica—crap, Erica lost the job. “I have to find Erica. I need to be with her when she finds out.”
“I have to go.” I started to leave.
“Wait.” He reached out for me, but I was hurrying toward the door. He called after me, “So, no date then?”
I held up a hand in an absentminded wave. Jake was the least of my…whatever he was—problem, person of interest. I didn’t know. I wasn’t going to think about him, not until I found Erica.
It didn’t take me long. I found her by the food court. She was standing behind a group of students, huddled around another television.
“Hey.” I tugged on her shirt when I got to her side. I had an insta-frown on my face. This wasn’t going to be good. Should I break the news to her? Or play dumb and wait for the phone call?
“Hey,” she mumbled back, distracted. Her eyes were narrowed, focused solely on the television in front of us.
I didn’t want to look. From the corner of my eye, I knew it was my face again. By now, the shock wore off. I remembered it was the anniversary of my case. I should’ve assumed to see my old face today. The trial had been all over the news, but it faded once I went into hiding. My case was solved. There was a dead body, and someone was in jail, but I was the only unknown. Every now and then, it’d pop back up on one of those shows about what had happened to so-and-so.
I shoved that out of my head again. “Erica?”
“Yeah? What?” Her attention was still zeroed in straight ahead.
I waved my hand in the air. “Roomie?”
“What?” She turned sharply to me, then softened her voice. “Sorry. What is it, though?”
I moved back a step, but I saw something in her eyes that I rarely saw. Hurt appeared there. She took her glasses off, and I saw it more evident. I rarely saw my roommate without her eye equipment. Her glasses seemed permanently attached. I even found her sleeping with them a few times.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Erica shielded the hurt, so she was just hostile now. When the full effect of that was coming at you, you’d need to be wary. My roommate was only five feet four, but she was a feisty five feet four. Weighing a hundred twenty-five, she might look like a book nerd with her glasses, choppy short hair, and pale skin, but her looks were deceiving. She had a reporter’s nose, intuition, and concentration that would outdo a bird dog on a bird trail. When something piqued her interest, nothing and no one had better get in the way…like I had just done.
I glanced at the phone she was clutching in her hand. “Any calls yet?”
“Why?” Suspicion formed on her face.
She jerked her head back to the television. “They called thirty minutes ago.”
“I’m so sorry, Erica. You weren’t planning on going to Sids tonight, were you?”
“Susan’s going to be there tonight.”
“How do you know that?”
Well. Shit. I glanced to the floor for a moment. My roommate was not a fan of my ex-fling-whatever-he-was. “Jake invited me to it, to the celebration.”
“Jake?” Her eyebrows pinched together. “What celebration?”
“For Susan. She got the job at the paper.” Ah, crap. I thought she knew? “You did know, right?” I touched her arm. That’s what I heard from her, wasn’t it? “That Susan got the job? I didn’t break that news to you?”
She nodded, chewing the inside of her lip. “I can’t believe her nerve. Did she ask Jake to ask you? And holy shit, Jake asked you out? After the last time you saw him? Asshole! That’s something Susan would totally do. I bet she made him ask you just to piss me off—you know, kick me when I’m down, pour salt in the wound.”
Erica was the one who helped me get over him, promising to ruin him with the power of a thousand suns. Those were her words, not mine. I knew she’d exacted some revenge on him—hacking into his school email and changing his passwords to everything in the system—but she toned it down when I told her I didn’t want to
“Or did he ask you out on his own?” She pinned me down with that question. “He humiliated you last winter.”
I moved back a step. “Well…I mean…that’s putting it dramatically.” It was true, but I glanced around. She didn’t have to broadcast it to everyone.
“You slept on your bathroom floor for an entire weekend.”
Yep, we were getting attention now. A rush of blood went to my face, and I was becoming redder as she kept talking by the minute.
“Hey, now. Can we lower this conversation just a small bit?”
“I had to buy twelve cartons of ice cream for you.”
Kian by Tijan / Romance & Love have rating 4.2 out of 5 / Based on50 votes