Yawning hugely, I rubbed my hand over my eyes and tried to pay attention. Mr. Snyder droned on and on about the Norns in Norse lore and the Fates of Greek mythology.
Somnolence threatened to overtake me. I sat up straighter and eyeballed the doodles in my notebook, proof my mind was not in the same place as my body. Glancing at the clock, I groaned. Only forty minutes had passed…I still had another fifty minutes to go. I’d just copy off Mia’s notes after school. I turned to her and scowled. How did she manage to look so fresh and perky? Obviously, she hadn’t been woken up by strange dreams.
In fact, she’d gone all out and actually beautified herself. Her light-brown hair with honey highlights was perfectly coiffed with gentle curls. Her large, soulful brown eyes were made up in colors of blue, her cheeks rouged, and her lips pouty and pink.
I cast my gaze down and scrutinized myself. I hadn’t even had time to run a brush through my hair, which currently hung limply at my waist. I probably reeked too, considering I’d built up a sweat during my run. Maybe Ryk liked stinky girls seeing as he’d actually held my hand, or maybe he had no sense of smell. I felt grungy next to Miss Perfect beside me.
Letting out a loud sigh, I tried to pay attention to Mr. Snyder as his lecture switched to Norse gods and the Valkyrie. The subject material was interesting though I couldn’t concentrate. Instead, my mind kept drifting to my dream from the morning along with meeting my…guardian of all things. I still wasn’t sure if I believed him. Seriously, how could he have known my great-grandma, Viktora? If she died almost seventy years before and he looked to be in his early thirties, then he’d have to be at least a hundred years old.
Maybe he was psychic or psychotic or—a psychotic psychic. Yeah, I’d go with that for now, because to think of the alternative was simply too crazy to comprehend.
“Ouch!” I yelped at the sharp smack on the back of my head and glared at Mia. Her eyes traveled from mine to the class. Blinking a few times to clear my vision, I squinted at the sea of faces staring back at me. This can’t be good. How embarrassing.
Mr. Snyder leaned back against his desk, crossed his arms over his chest and smirked.
I knew I was in trouble. He had a reputation for being an ass. In fact, I’d witnessed his assholishness myself with other students.
“Why don’t you tell us where your mind wandered to, Ms. Hayden?”
“Uh…um.” I licked my lips and my gaze drifted about the class. Bringing my attention back to Mr. Snyder, I swallowed hard. What to say? Let’s see…today I discovered I have a humanoid guardian who claims to be faster than the eye can see?
Clearing my throat, I prepared to make more of an ass of myself. “I…um…was so engrossed in your lecture I guess I sort of zoned out.” Jesus. Not even I’d believe that.
“Really.” He drew out the word and raised a brow.
I heard some snickers but didn’t take my eyes off him. “Y-yes.” My face flamed from embarrassment.
“And what do you recall my lecture being, Ms. Hayden?”
My mind raced as I tried to remember what his lecture was about, seeing as how I’d been zoned out for most it. “Well…” I squirmed in my seat as he stared me down. “You were talking about Norse gods.”
His gaze narrowed. “And who was the last god I mentioned?”
Christ! I wanted to slam my head on the desk and knock myself out. I recalled seeing a picture of a god while flipping through the book the day before. What was his name? “Odin?”
He continued to regard me suspiciously for a few seconds before addressing the class. “Don’t forget your analyses of three different gods from the three different pantheons are due Wednesday.” He looked pointedly at me. “Let’s see how well you paid attention, Ms. Hayden. Class dismissed.”
I quickly hopped up and jostled my way out while Mia trailed behind. “I can’t believe I’d spaced out.”
Mia snorted. “Spaced out?” She glanced down at me from the corner of her eye. Even though she was rather short herself, she’d lord it over me that she was two inches taller. “What happened between you taking me home last night and this morning?”
“Nothing much, really.”
“Mm-hmm. You came to school looking like you’d just rolled out of bed, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. Honestly, Tora. Did you even comb your hair?”
I ran my fingers through my tangled, snarled hair. “Maybe not.”
“If I didn’t know you any better, I’d say you were high.”
“It’s…complicated.” God, complicated didn’t even cover it. “Extremely complicated. Hallu-cated, basically.”
“A complicated hallucination? What did you do?”
“If you’re thinking I’d purposefully doped myself up, you’re wrong.” I dropped my bag on the floor and plopped down in one of the overstuffed chairs in the hallway sitting area and leaned my head back, trying to figure out how much to tell her.
Mia sat in the chair beside me, a worried look on her face.
I picked at the frayed edges of my shorts. “I had a weird dream this morning. I remembered being saved by a guy, but I couldn’t go back to sleep afterward, so I went to the park for a run.”
“What did the guy look like? Was he hot?”
I shot her a look. “What does that have to do with anything?”
She leaned back in her chair and shrugged. “You dream about a hot guy saving you. You need a man, Tora.”
I scowled at her. “No. I don’t. Besides, the dream is only part of it.”
She raised her eyebrows, intrigued.
“He was at the park. I mean, actually there.”
“You were hallucinating?”
“No!” I threw my hands up. “He was actually there. I talked to him.” I rubbed my forehead to will away the coming headache. “I don’t understand it. I’ve never met him before; pretty sure I’ve never even seen him. But why would I dream about him and then meet him?” I stared at the ceiling. “Maybe he was a hallucination. I don’t know.”
Mia scrunched up her face. “I think you should see a shrink.”
“Yeah, right.” I put my feet up on the coffee table. I’d spent countless grudging hours in therapy while growing up. Talk about irony my major was psych. “I don’t need to see a shrink.”
I pulled my phone out to check the time and noticed two missed calls. “I need to get going.”
We walked in companionable silence to the Metra at Fifty-Ninth Street a couple of blocks off the University of Chicago campus.
“Are you still going to Unforgettable today?” she asked.
“Yes. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” The thought of a day of pampering lifted my mood.
“You’re so lucky. I could use some pampering. This wedding planning stuff is stressing me out. Don’t get me wrong—I love it. It’s just…” She stopped walking and grabbed my arm. “I’ve only got a month until I’m a married woman.” She slowly shook her head back and forth and looked both amazed and scared at the same time. “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?”
I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“About getting married. Am I doing the right thing?” She bit her lower lip and looked uncertain.
I stared at her in amazed shock. “You’re seriously asking me if you’re doing the right thing? You do realize how anti-man I am?” Getting serious with anyone was the absolute last thing I wanted, especially after Aiden’s cheating ways.
Mia giggled. “You sound like Dr. Seuss. Anti-man, I’m anti-man, anti-man I am.”
Grinning, I laughed along with her. “Okay, okay. Look. Can you see yourself with him fifty years from now, still stupid in love even though you’re both saggy and old?”
Her eyes took on a dreamy quality. “Yeah.” She smiled a little and then her focus sharpened back on me. “I can see it. We’ll both be old, wrinkled, and gray. He’ll be balding and have this potbelly and my boobs will be hanging down to my waist, but I’ll still be stupid in love with him. Thanks.”
She twirled around and I looked past her shoulder. Her fiancé, Gabe, stood ahead next to a shiny red Nissan Cube parked along the street. The sun reflected off his watch creating blinding rays as he fervently waved to get her attention.
She waved back to let him know she saw him, turned toward me and started walking backward away from me in his direction. “Go and relax. Get your mind off Aiden, the cheating bastard. I’ll see ya at work tonight.” With a huge grin, she pivoted around and ran to Gabe. When she reached him, she jumped into his waiting arms with enough force to knock him back against the car.
And then she attempted to suck his brains out through his mouth. At least, that’s how it looked.
Smiling at their public display of affection, I quickly made my way through the crowd to the Metra, making it to the platform with barely a minute to spare.
After boarding the empty train and dropping my bag on a seat, I leaned back and closed my eyes. Luckily it would take less than ten minutes to get home since I lived on Marquette Road which was only about a block from the Sixty-Seventh Station.
My thoughts strayed to Ryk. On a whim, I pulled out my phone and looked up Ryk Xander. A picture of him popped up for R. Xander Industries. “Huh,” I breathed and stared at his picture. He’s actually a living, breathing, nonhuman, male…thing, species, whatever. The main point was he was real and not some awesome, amazing figment of my imagination. My thoughts stayed on our conversation for the rest of the train ride, my walk home, and as I trudged up the narrow stairs to the second floor of my apartment building. Little puffs of dust sprang up with each step as I made my way through the dimly-lit halls toward my apartment. All thoughts of Ryk flew out of my mind when I passed Aiden’s door.
What an asshat.
I strode to my apartment and unlocked the door, ambled in and dropped everything on the floor by my faded brown couch.
Frankie, my twenty-pound pudge of a brown tabby, leapt up on the couch and meowed loudly.
I scratched him behind the ears and instantly felt myself relax. I’d adopted him and Leo, an orange Maine Coon from a shelter, vowing to take better care of them than anyone had for me. Being passed around from foster home to foster home where I’d had to protect myself from sexual advances and endure physical and emotional abuse was not an ideal way to grow up. I was considered a problem child and labeled with all sorts of disorders—conduct disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, attention-deficit disorder—and at no time did the therapists and social workers look at the reasons behind those disorders. After all, they told me living with a foster family was so much better than living on the street. In my perspective at the time, living on the streets would’ve been a hell of a lot better.
I didn’t want to dwell on my past and what I conceded to be the system’s shortcomings. It made me melancholy, and it was all in the past. Since I’d graduated from high school and taken control of my life, things were better now. For the most part, I was happy.
Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I checked my messages. Summer’s throaty voice drifted into my ear. “Hey, sexy. Just calling to remind you of your pampering session today, though I doubt you’ll forget. I can’t wait for you to see the new nail colors. I think you’ll love the Like A Virgin.” Her laugh echoed in my head. “See you then.”
I smiled at the thought of seeing her, and my mood instantly shifted. Summer and I met back when I’d started college when I was a young, wide-eyed, eighteen-year-old freshman three years before and we’d become fast friends. She owned Unforgettable, a hip and trendy salon and day spa, and lived with her lover, Aveya. They were bi, which apparently kept things interesting between them.
The next message was a hang-up. Probably the asshat. Just to be sure, I checked my recent calls. Sure enough, a missed call from the asshat.
Strolling to the bathroom, I pulled my shirt off and dropped it and stripped out of the rest of my clothes along the way, leaving a trail as I went. The only thing I kept on was my necklace; that I never took off.
After showering, I ransacked my closet and settled on a flowing, soft-ivory tank with a ruffled neckline and see-through top layer which I matched with tan-colored khakis. I was meeting with Summer at Unforgettable for a haircut, mani and pedi, all at no charge to me for some pampering and girl-time after my breakup with Aiden the week before. We’d been together seriously as a couple for six months but had been friends for about a year. He’d betrayed me by having a drunken, one-night stand with some woman he’d picked up at a bar.
After dressing, I carefully lined my hazel, almond-shaped eyes with black liquid liner and pulled my long auburn hair back into a ponytail. I assumed my Asian cast came from my mother, but since I never knew her, I didn’t know for sure. Lastly, I slipped on some three-inch spiked heels. I’d considered the six-inch ankle breakers, but since I had a ways to walk, that probably wasn’t the best idea.
I grabbed my purse and keys and strutted out the door hoping I wouldn’t run into Aiden. He lived three doors down, which was a real pain. For some reason, he thought he could still keep tabs on me. Obviously, he knew nothing about The Breakup Rules.
“Speak of the devil.” Of course. The second I stepped out of my apartment, Aiden’s door opened and he popped out of his.
He froze in his doorway for a second, his hand still on the knob, and then his eyes narrowed. “Where’re you goin’?”
Perturbed, I shut my door a bit harder than I’d intended to. “Out.”
He sneered and shut his door. “Out? Dressed like that?”
I had to look up since I didn’t even reach his chin. His white blonde hair and pale skin gave him an almost ethereal look, though he was anything but. His aqua blue eyes darkened with desire and roamed over me. My breathing increased and my body heat rose. Dammit, why was I still attracted to him?
He shook his head as if to clear his mind, leaned his slim yet muscular frame back against his door and crossed his arms in front of his chest. His lip curled up. “So, who are you meeting?”
I slowly let out a breath and thought of my happy place on the beach in Bali. At first, it’d been great having my boyfriend live in the same apartment complex and only three doors down. In hindsight, I never would’ve dated him if kicking him out of my place meant I still had to see him every day.
“I’m going to meet my three Spanish lovers.” I ticked their names off on my fingers. “Alejandro, Luis, and Julian.”
“Since when did you turn into such a slut?”
My eyes bugged out in shock. He believed I’d do three guys at the same time? And here, I thought he was one of the few people who actually knew me.
Agitated, he ran a hand through his hair. “Sorry. That was uncalled for. I told you I was sorry. How many times do I have to say it? I didn’t do it to break us up.”
“Oh, really?” I imagined his head exploding. “So, a night of carnal bliss with someone other than your girlfriend was merely an accident?” My eyes narrowed into a glare. “If you weren’t fucking the barmaid to break us up, then may I ask why?” I tried to keep my voice mild, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d pissed me off.
“I was fucking drunk!” he exploded, his hands gesturing widely. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Fuck, I probably thought I was doing you!”
My blood boiled through my veins. My heart pounded in my head, and I actually felt heat escape from my ears. “Ooooh, nice. Reeeaaal nice.” Steamed, I shook my head. Unfortunately, I had to walk toward him in order to get past him.
“God, Tora. Isn’t it about time you got over it? It was only one time!” he shouted.
“What the hell does that mean? You only did her one time, or it was only one night? You know what? I don’t want to know.”
“Only one time,” he whispered as I angrily strode past him.
Seeing red, I stopped, came back, stood in front of him and gave him the stink eye as he glowered down at me. The control I’d worked so hard to keep snapped. My leg seemed to come up of its own accord, and I kicked him square in the balls.
His eyes teared up. His mouth made a wide O, and he doubled over in pain. “Bitch, that hurts! What the fuck was that for?” he managed to gasp out.
“Yeah, that’s the point, and why? Well, genius, for that comment you made. And if I want to fuck three guys at the same time, I will. Oh yeah, and fuck you.” I turned on my heel and stomped away. I didn’t know where that reaction had come from, but it felt good to kick him where it hurt and see him in pain. Serves him right. “Well, would you look at that?” I ran a hand down my shirt. “I didn’t even muss up my outfit.”
As I made my way through the hall and down the stairs, I took deep breaths and counted to ten…over and over again. Once outside, I briskly paced to the Metra. I’d contemplated moving, but where would I go? I loved my five-hundred-square-foot apartment in South Chicago. It was cheap, only five-hundred-seventy-five dollars a month plus utilities which was way better than the three-thousand-dollars-a-pop-condos downtown.
The Metra was exactly on time, as usual. I quickly boarded and then hesitated. The car was completely crowded. My choices were to either sit next to a woman bawling her eyes out or stand next to a dude eyeballing me, decked out in leather, chains, studs all over his face and covered in tattoos. He stroked his crotch and licked his lips. Needless to say, I decided to sit next to the woman.
She carried on a loud conversation with someone on her phone. I tried not to listen but couldn’t help it, not with how animated she was. Her eyes were red and swollen from bawling so hard, and she could hardly breathe from the exhaustion she’d put in her conversation. To top it off, she was snotting and wiped her nose on her bare arm, leaving a snot trail that gave me the dry heaves.
“Please, Vinny. Don’t leave,” she begged. “I’ll die if you go.” She carried on, bawling and snotting some more. After a couple minutes, her entire demeanor changed. Her eyes turned to ice, and her tears miraculously dried up. “You fucked around on me? With my best friend?” Her voice got very quiet and lethal. “I’m going to kill you both. I’m going to slit your throats, slice off your dick, and feed you to the dogs,” she said calmly into the phone.
Holy shit. She was like Jekyll and Hyde. Secretly, I wondered if Vinny hadn’t told her he’d cheated just to get rid of her. Maybe I should’ve stood next to Masturbating Guy rather than sitting beside Murdering Bitch.
She slammed her phone shut and turned in my direction, her eyes wild and her mouth in a snarl. “Men, I hate them.” She then wiped her nose, again, this time with the other arm.
How disgusting. I could all but see the germs gleefully jumping from her arms to me. Unfortunately, there was no place else to sit or stand, and I seriously contemplated spending some quality time in a decontamination chamber.
She finally lumbered off at her stop, and the rest of the train ride was blessedly uneventful. Another two stops and it would be my turn to disembark at Millennium Station.
Still edgy from meeting Ryk, my run-in with Aiden and then having to endure sitting next to Murdering Bitch, I got off the train and trekked north on Michigan toward Unforgettable.
An elderly man tramped toward me wearing a dirty, wrinkled, white, ripped-up shirt. His pants looked about two sizes too big and were cinched at the waist with some rope. He struggled to carry an easel, an art canvas, and a container of chalk. The container fell out of his hand and slammed against the concrete sidewalk. Some of the pieces spilled out, and a blue one rolled to the edge of the sidewalk and plopped down onto the street. He hastily dropped the rest of his things, crouched down and tried to edge his way onto the street to get his chalk.
I strode over to see if I could help before he got himself smeared on the road. Kneeling down to his level, I stretched out my hand in case I needed to pull him back. “Sir, can I help you?”
He peered at me over his shoulder, eyes narrowed, mouth in a thin line. With a scowl, he glanced at my outstretched hand. Right then a taxi went streaming by and ran over his chalk, crushing it to smithereens. His mouth dropped open with an intake of shocked breath as he took in the scene before him. His shattered chalk made a long smear line at the edge of the road. Glowering, he turned back to me, lifted his fist in the air and shook it while yelling, “Damn woman! If you hadn’t bothered me I coulda grabbed my chalk before that taxi ran over it.”
I quickly stood and stepped back. God, this old douche was crazy.
He huffed as he picked up his belongings, mumbling loudly, “People. I hate them. Need to mind their own goddamn business and leave everyone else the fuck alone.”
Yes, I loved Chicago.
Grinning, I turned onto Pearson and strolled past Hershey’s toward the salon. For some strange reason, that grumpy old man had put me in a good mood though I didn’t know why. Did the why matter? No, I decided, it didn’t.
I passed Hershey’s and was almost to Unforgettable when I felt it, an itch between my shoulder blades causing a tingle down my spine.
Someone was keeping tabs on me.