The Ending . . .
I blink, setting off a bomb of excruciating pain. A mirror has exploded within my head, the shards tearing fissures through my brain matter, chasing the lurking shadows from my mind.
“He’s waking up. Tell them he’s waking up.”
A voice like a gunshot speaks from above me. Loud. Jolting. I turn away from the noise, and a click reverberates, filling my ears as a searing slice of pain screams up my neck, shooting into my jaw.
The shadows return, pressing me down, down, down. I gasp.
“Hey, dude, don’t move.” I feel a sudden pressure on my forehead. “We’ve called 9-1-1. Stay still.”
My mouth fills with sour bile as I attempt blinking again. My eyes won’t open, not completely. My vision is reduced to a slit of light. A glowing face. No. A face, lit by the glow of a cell phone, and outlined by the night sky. My mouth opens and nothing comes out. My tongue is thick, coated with the tang of metal. I swallow. Blood?
“Is that—” A feminine voice joins the deeper one above me. She’s further away. Standing, maybe? Her gasp is audible. “Ray, that’s Austin Rutledge.”
Ray’s gunshot voice startles me, “Holy—”
Yes. Yes, I’m Austin. What happened? Why won’t the words form?
“What about the other—?” the female’s voice waivers. There’s sniffling. A sharp intake of air. Is she crying? The pressure on my forehead lessens. What did she mean by “the other”? What is “the other”? Answer her question, Ray.
There’s a faint whir of sirens in the distance.
“They’re almost here. Hang in there, man.”
I attempt drawing in a deep breath, wheezing at the pain and lack of oxygen. What is wrong with me? Think, man, think. Where are you?
A scream explodes in my head. A memory.
It’s female and blood-curdling.
“Damn it,” the words tumble from my lips, blood pooling in my mouth. I twist, spitting out the thick warmth, gagging on it, and on the fear in her scream. Dread coils within my gut.
“You shouldn’t move. You could have a spine injury,” the wavering female voice advises. Spinal injury?
My mind scrolls through sounds and images in an attempt at figuring things out. There was a scream—she screamed, didn’t she?
Why can’t I remember?
“What do you think happened?” the girl asks Ray. His reply is a low mumble, their voices fading as the sirens become louder as they come closer.
I blink. I have to concentrate to accomplish the simple movement—my forehead wrinkling, my teeth gritting. I have to force it. Each breath is an order, not an act of human nature.
Ray moves out of my line of sight and I focus on the sky. The night is black. No city lights or buildings. It’s dark pillows of gray clouds painted against an inky sky with pin prick stars peeking in and out of view.
Red flashing lights break into the haze.
I grip at the cold grass beneath me, my fingers digging into the ground for leverage as I attempt sitting up. It’s pointless. My entire left side throbs with pain. I vaguely remember something striking my arm. Do I even have an arm left? I can’t feel it, but I’m pretty sure it’s there. I hope. I know it was there because earlier she was holding onto it. I see it. I see her—laughing up at me, holding my arm, making a joke.
“C-c-c,” the gurgled sound barely touches the air beyond my lips as fire and darkness press down me. Sirens fill the air, much louder now. Doors slam. New voices speak. My eyes slip closed as hands probe. I float between two worlds. Darkness and pain. Darkness fights harder, winning . . . except—
Her scream . . . her voice.
I jerk awake, but don’t move. I’m tied down. Wincing, I force my head to clear. To see. To speak.
“Cassie.” Her name is stronger this time. My chest tightens as though my air has been cut off.
A face appears before me. “There you are. It’s going to be okay, Austin. We’re—”
“Cassie.” Blood dances over my taste buds as I raise my voice. “Where’s Cassie? Where is she?”
The face morphs into a frown, shaking back and forth.
No, don’t shake your head at me. Where’s Cassie?
My body goes weightless. A gurney. An ambulance. The pieces of the puzzle sort themselves, understanding sinking in. I’ve woken to a nightmare. I’m being loaded into an ambulance. I’m broken. The police are here. The medics are here.
She’s not here.
I blink, forcing my eyes wider—and I vomit as the ambulance doors slam closed. A medic tilts the board I’m attached to sideways as the feeling of movement sets in. The ambulance drives away from the wooded field where my body was found, leaving behind the couple who found me. Leaving behind strobes of red and blue lights.
Leaving behind a black body bag.
BEFORE THE FALL
Four months earlier . . .
Every story has a beginning,
But most of us walk in at the middle . . .
What a shitty day. Those legs, though. They have the potential to turn it all around. I lean my shoulder against the cool metal shelving to my right and stare, blatantly. This is the best damn view I’ve had all day.
The legs aren’t long and lean so much as shapely and—thanks to the position of their owner—shown to perfection. She’s balancing atop a black stool, her body stretched from her toes to her fingertips as she reaches for the top of a ten-foot shelving unit. Her skirt—probably an acceptable length when standing flat—lifts dangerously high, allowing a glimpse of smooth thighs nearly up to where they met her ass.
Hell yeah, the legs are worth the stop.
I’m on a quick library run. Grab a book for class and head to dinner. Fifteen minutes, tops. I’m exhausted. My plan for tonight is to grab dinner, knock out my assignments, and throw my ass in bed. But, like everything else about this day, I have no luck. Apparently finding a simple book requires the freaking FBI. I searched row after row for fifteen minutes before giving up and heading to the student desk for assistance. Or I was seeking assistance before I passed the higher reference stacks near the back of the building and caught this pair of smooth legs near the end of the aisle I’m currently standing in. The angel on my shoulder—and I’m surprised he’s still there—reminds me of my original intent for being here. Go find your book, Austin. But the devil—oh yeah, he’s a sneaky son of a bitch—has me admiring the view with the appreciative eye of a connoisseur.
The object of my attention, and a whole lot of lust, drops to the flats of her feet with a heavy exhale. She shakes her arms at her sides before stretching up once again. The girl is determined, and I’m transfixed. She can’t be more than five feet tall. Her body, like her legs, is shapely. All of her curves are in all the right places. A curtain of long hair conceals everything else, the dark curls bouncing side-to-side as she struggles. She grunts once more, flipping her head back, and the curtain parts. The strands slide behind her shoulder—a shampoo commercial couldn’t have caught the motion any better—and my breath catches.
I know this girl.
Neither her legs nor her ass hold my attention anymore. No, I’m caught by everything about her. I don’t know her name, but she intrigued me the moment I spied her reading at a corner table a few nights ago. Her focus is commendable. She sat entranced by her books for hours, never noticing the people around her. Four days into classes and I’ve seen her here three times. Always at the same table. Always focused. Always alone.
“Excuse me,” I call down the aisle before thinking better of it. “I’m looking for a book.”
Twisting my way, she braces her palms against the shelving unit, and my breathing becomes difficult as her eyes meet mine. “I’m sorry?”
Damn, I’m turned on by the mere sound of her husky, irritated voice. This girl could wrap me around her finger with one lusty sigh. I have no sense of self-preservation, so I move deeper into the aisle and close the space between us.
“The system says it’s in, but I can’t locate it.” I hold out the slip of paper with the shelving location.
Dark brows lift under black-framed glasses as she studies me. I’ve seen her with and without those glasses. Either way, she’s adorable. It’s not the way I typically describe a girl I’m interested in, but that’s her to a T. Adorable.
“And I was hoping you could check behind the circulation desk. You work here don’t you?”
Her cheeks puff, a disgruntled breath blowing from her mouth as her eyes roll heavenward and she lowers from her toes. “Actually, I don’t.” From the look on her face, I can tell she’s restraining herself from calling me an idiot, or worse. Her irritation with my interruption is palatable, and I grin.
“Oh, my bad.” I cock my head to the side. “I see you here all the time. I thought you must—”
“Of course,” she nods, her lips twisting as she returns her attention to the shelves before her. “A girl can’t possibly be at the library to study?”
A witty retort slips through my mind as my hungry gaze locks on her stretched calves once again. The way her muscles bunch and lengthen, pure lust shoots through me as my mouth goes dry.
“Here, let me give you a hand.” It’s either that or I grab some popcorn and enjoy the show. Moving toward her is a win-win option.
The heel of her blue flat pops off her right foot as she teeters on the stool. Her shield of hair flips over her shoulder. “You work here?” The sarcasm in her voice is thick as her brown eyes meet mine. “I mean, you’re here all the time.”
I halt mid-step. Well, hell.
“Touché,” I drawl, biting the edge of my tongue as she resumes her search. Stepping back, I linger, watching her. I swear she squares her shoulders as her head tilts sideways and she struggles, reading the titles inches above her eyeline. Okay, I’ll make her sweat. Make her ask for help. She can pull books down one by one until she finds what she needs, or she can ask me.
“Do you mind?”
Her frustration propels me forward. “Not at all.” I reach up without permission, my fingers skimming the book spines on the top shelf as I move closer, brushing her back lightly with my free hand. “Which do you need?”
Wobbling, she stumbles to the ground as though my touch repulses her. “I wasn’t asking for help.”
“Which do you need?” I repeat.
“None, thank you.” She inches back, her tone formal. I grin, but my boyish smile doesn’t dent her facade.
“Oh, c’mon, I’m a foot taller than you. Let me help find your book.” The words chase after her as she turns, hurrying down the aisle and out of sight.
Well, that’s an ego crusher.
Shoving my hands in my pockets, I return to the main aisle and glance around the nearby stacks. There’s no one around. No witnesses to my humiliating rejection. My phone vibrates in my pocket and I fish it out to find Jules’ face glowing up at me. For the first time since we ran into each other in July, I don’t answer her call. When she shoots me a text a moment later asking about dinner, I ignore it. All I can think of is the tiny little spitfire who blew me off moments ago, and it makes me question what I’ve been doing with Jules.