Twisted Fate – Jessi Elliott

A gentle hand rests on my arm, and I momentarily consider breaking it. I’m tired, overworked, and in desperate need of caffeine. I sat at the back of the lecture hall for a reason. Still, someone has the nerve to bother me. “You might want to at least pretend to be awake,” says a male voice, his tone laced with amusement. I lift my head from the fold-out desk and blow the hair away from my face before turning toward the unfamiliar voice. The first thing I notice is the grass-green color of his eyes. I recognize his face now. It’s an embarrassing reminder of the many times he’s caught me noticing him around campus. I saw him for the first time during freshman year at Taylor’s Brew—a popular student hangout a few blocks from campus. My best friend and roommate Allison was convinced he was checking me out, but she didn’t miss a beat in warning me he was too old. He sticks his hand out. “I’m Grant, the teaching assistant. I’m also in this class.” He must be pretty smart to land that position while still being a student himself.

“Aurora,” I say. His palm is rough against mine, as though he works with his hands often. He passes me the class outline and syllabus, which I scan while he drops into the seat next to me. The keys in the pocket of his worn denim jeans jingle, drawing my attention back to him. “What’s your major?” he asks, flicking back a bit of brown hair that’s sticking out from a beanie hat. Grant rocks the overdone hipster look, I’ll give him that. “Business,” I answer. “My last year, thank god.” He nods as if he understands. “A busy year.

” I groan in agreement, fighting the urge to let my head fall back onto the desk and go back to sleep before the lecture starts. Grant leans over and nudges my shoulder. “It’s Friday. You should take the weekend off. You’ll have all semester to stress over papers and exams. Try to think about it this way: only two semesters until graduation, then you can work for some huge company or open your own. You can do whatever you want.” Opening my own business is the goal. Since I was young, I’ve known I wanted to open a bookstore. Now it’s even more important I succeed.

My brother was diagnosed with cancer three years ago. My parents would never ask me to pay them back for my tuition, but with the amount of time they’ve both taken off work, they need the money. I sigh before casting him a sideways glance and say, “I hope you’re right.” He grins. “Stick with me, and you’ll see I’m always right.” My only response is a short burst of laughter. “Listen, there’s a party off campus tonight. You should come.” He scribbles the address on a piece of paper and hands it to me. “No better way to ring in the new school year than with cheap beer and free pizza.

” I press my lips together. “You make a good point,” I say. “I’ll think about it.” The lecture ends late as they often do. It’s after nine when I say goodbye to Grant and cross the street to walk through the cobblestone courtyard toward the dorms. Located in the middle of downtown, Rockdale University’s campus has beautifully landscaped gardens paired with tall, glass buildings. The entire campus is spread out across ten blocks. My shoulder smacks into someone walking the opposite way, and I immediately turn to apologize, catching a stranger’s intense blue eyes. “My fault,” he mutters, continuing on his way. My feet feel like concrete, stuck in place as my stomach churns, unable to erase the sharp expression on the man’s face.

I swallow, sucking in a breath when my phone buzzes in my back pocket. “Hey, Mom,” I answer, a little breathless as I force my legs to move again. “How was your week?” she asks. “I wish I could’ve been there for your first day as a senior.” What she means is she still wishes I’d gone to the college in my hometown of Mapleville, where both she and my dad are professors. That was never my plan. I didn’t want my education handed to me on a shiny silver platter. “It’s been a fairly uneventful week.” I walk into the lobby of my dorm and wait for the elevator. “Any news on your placement?” “Interviews are in a couple of weeks.

” I’m hoping for something that has the potential for a job offer at the end. Knowing I have a job after graduation would make me feel better. “Sounds good,” she says. “Adam misses you already.” “Tell him I miss him, too. Love you guys.” We say goodbye as I step into the elevator with a few other students. I arrive back at my room and find the door wide open. Oliver is lounging on my bed in his normal, casual attire of jeans and a plain T-shirt, and Allison is sitting on her own bed. I shoot him a look.

“What did I say about shoes on my bed, Oliver?” He takes his time kicking them off, staring at me the whole time. That’s Oliver, though—always teasing, like an annoying brother. He’s also Allison’s boyfriend, but he may as well be chopped liver right now with how focused she is on her computer screen. Allison’s dedication to school is something I love about her. I think it’s part of what made us such good friends when we met in freshman year. We’re practically sisters. Hell, we look so alike we could be. That paired with our shared love of reading sealed the deal. Our friendship was fate. She’s been my rock since Adam got sick the first time, which is only further proof that we’d do anything for each other.

I drop my backpack and fall into the chair with a heavy sigh. Our standard size room couldn’t fit more than two beds, two dressers, and two desks, which is a shame because I’d love to have a bookshelf in here. “Did you get homework dumped on you this week, too?” I ask Allison. She nods without looking up and pushes her wavy blond hair away from her round face. She must’ve had an early class this morning because she skipped her makeup routine. “It’s not fair,” she mumbles, continuing her typing rampage. Oliver hollers and shoots his fist into the air, startling both Allison and me. “What the hell, Oliver?” Allison huffs as she closes her laptop. He looks up from his phone. “We’re going to a party.

Tonight. Get ready. Right now.” My stomach flutters. “The one off campus?” Was he talking about the one Grant invited me to? “Hell, yeah. C’mon!” He jumps off my bed and shoves his hand through his sandy brown curls. He puts his shoes back on while humming under his breath before standing upright. Oliver towers over my five-foot-three frame, but he doesn’t have much muscle on him. Allison and I exchange looks, trying not to laugh at his adorable, childlike behavior. “You’re awfully excited for this party,” I tease.

“The first kegger is always the craziest. It’s the best party of the year. Now quit your stalling and put on some clothes that don’t make you look like a homeless person.” Apparently Allison’s shorts and crop top are sufficient for this party, considering he doesn’t comment on them. In the small, three-piece bathroom, I change into jean shorts and a flowy tank top and shrug on a cardigan as I second-guess going to this party. I’m not one to frequent them throughout the semester, but I’ve tagged along with Allison and Oliver on a few occasions. I always have a good time; I would tonight, but I should stay home. Screw it. It’s my senior year of college. I want to start it off with a bang.

The cab drops the three of us off at the curb of a student property on the less urban side of Rockdale. The music from inside is vibrating through the house, and Allison is already swaying her hips to whatever pop song is playing. The house is huge, which is not what I expected for a student rental in the city. Where most are run-down bungalows, this place is three stories of gray stone. Several trees cover the yard, all glowing with the soft hues of twinkling lights strung through the branches. An empty beer can crunches under my foot as we’re walking across the lawn. We approach the door, and Oliver, without knocking, lets himself in. Far too many people fill the house to notice more entering, so Allison and I follow him. We make our way through the hallway, and my eyes flick to the vaulted ceiling before we make it into the open concept kitchen, furnished to the nines with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops—most of which are covered in empty beer bottles and pizza boxes. Oliver shouts at the guy manning the keg near the French doors which lead to the backyard where more people are dancing, and the two of them spark up some conversation about a party they were at last semester.

Allison and I grab a couple of beers, leave Oliver talking to his friend, and migrate into the living room where people are singing and dancing. “Allison! Aurora!” We both spin around at the high-pitched squeal of Danielle, a girl from my program who lives on our floor. Her cheeks are rosy; the beer in her hand probably isn’t her first. “Danielle.” I smile as she clinks her bottle against mine, then Allison’s. “How’s it going?” Her eyes shift between Allison and me. “Great! This place is packed!” She’s right. I wrinkle my nose at the overwhelming smell of pizza, beer, and a mixture of perfume, cologne, and body odor. Allison nods and takes a drink of her beer. I flick my eyes over to her, wondering why she’s glaring at Danielle.

“We’ll catch up later, okay?” I say. “Sure.” Danielle giggles. “Have fun, ladies.” When she’s out of earshot, I turn to Allison. “What was that about?” She shrugs. “Nothing. Let’s dance.” She plasters a smile on her face as if it’s been practiced, and I frown before following her through the crowd. Allison and I stick together, dancing side by side, chatting with the people around us, while Oliver hangs with the guys in the kitchen.

Hours pass in a blur of drinking and dancing, talking over the music. The country songs aren’t anything I’m a huge fan of, but the beer I’m tossing back makes it easier to enjoy. I manage to break away from the crowd and leave Allison with a group of girls from our building while I look for the bathroom. You don’t buy beer; you rent it, my mom always says. “Upstairs.” A deep, newly familiar voice catches my attention, and I glance toward the sound to find Grant grinning at me. I smile in greeting and arch a brow at him. “Excuse me?” He tips his head back against the wall, the hair in front of his face falling away. “The bathroom. It’s upstairs.

” He points to a set of stairs a few feet away. “Oh,” I mumble. “Thanks.” He nods. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t think you’d come. I figured you’d crash after class earlier.” “It’s not my fault Professor Boring talks so low. It’s a miracle anyone could hear him.” Grant laughs before I continue. “And don’t get me started on his PowerPoints.

” He whistles. “Those are some harsh words, but I have to agree. I offered to work on them for him, but the guy wouldn’t let me. Being a TA only means so much, I guess.” He laughs again. “I won’t keep you here talking. I’ll see you around, Aurora.” He touches my shoulder briefly and offers a smile. The butterflies in my stomach give a healthy flutter. Grant’s attention is rather nice.

My head spins as I jog up the stairs, having to grab the railing a couple of times to keep my balance, and almost get lost trying to find the damn bathroom. This house has way too many hallways and doors. That, and I’ve had a few too many beers—an annoying reminder I’m a lightweight. Groaning when I round another corner and see the line, I make my way to the back of it and pull my phone out. I scroll through Twitter, my most recent social media addiction, until the line moves and it’s my turn. I’m quick and hurry out of the bathroom, knowing how many people are still waiting. Trying to retrace my steps is more difficult than it should be. Turned around, I end up in an empty hallway. The skin on the back of my neck tingles, making me pause. I debate calling Allison or Oliver to come find me when a door opens, sending me stumbling back, clutching my chest as a guy steps into the hallway.

“My bad,” he says, sounding unapologetic. He runs a hand through his short, dark brown hair, and his gaze holds mine as his eyes narrow. He inhales slowly. “Well, it’s my lucky night. Looks like I’m going to be able to wrap this up in a jiffy.” He tugs on the lapels of his jacket as if to straighten them and then claps his hands together. My brows inch closer. “Do I know you?” “I’m Max.” He smirks, his teeth straight and white—too perfect. “You don’t know me, but I know you.

” I shake my head, sobering up a bit, and peek around the empty hallway. Where the hell is everyone? I can hear voices shouting over the music downstairs, but there’s not a person in sight. “I don’t think so.” Hold on. Those eyes . This is the guy I ran into on my way home from class. He presses his lips together and exhales through his nose as if he’s trying to calm himself. My gut tells me I need to get out of here. Now. “I should get back to the party,” I say in a forced, level tone.

“My friends are waiting for me.” He tilts his head to the side, and the curve of his lips turns my stomach as I shift the weight between my feet. His eyes follow me closely, as if each move I make is intriguing. I take a step back in the same moment he steps forward. “What are you doing?” My voice cracks, as tightness clamps down on my chest. He chuckles. “You,” he pauses, “are in a lot of trouble, blondie.” His hand shoots forward, pressing flat against my chest, and my skin tingles under my shirt. I should scream. I should slap his hand away and bolt.

I should do a lot of things, but everything happens so fast. Black dots swim across my vision, and my ears ring over the pounding of my heart. Then my legs give out, and I collapse onto the hardwood floor.

.

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