My mom moved me and my brother to Hell a week ago. Now, mom was bringing us home after registering us at the Shadow Creek School – not high school, just school. Two long buildings with chipping white paint and maroon roofs made up the school, one for the lower campus (grades K-7) and one for the upper campus (grades 8-12). It was so small, it was ridiculous. Back in Chicago, my high school had three buildings on a sprawling campus that took up several city blocks. I felt like I would suffocate.
My anger built as mom drove the six blocks across town to our new home. There was a general store, which carried everything except food, a grocery store, a tavern-slash-inn on the corner, and two diners. Nothing had a brand name like Walmart or McDonald’s; no, they were all named things like Bubba’s Pancake Emporium and Ray’s General Store. I felt like I had gone back in time a hundred years.
We finally arrived at our cute little shack and I jumped out without a word to my mother. Glaring at everything in sight, I followed her inside, stripped off my black hoodie, shoved my feet into running shoes and finally looked up at her.
“I can’t believe you did this to me,” I growled at her and slammed out of the house. I vaguely heard Bryce call after me but that only made me pump my legs faster. I had to get away from there. I needed to get back to Chicago, surround myself in the familiar sounds and smog. All this greenery and fresh air was going to kill me.
I ran track for two years at my old high school and my legs seemed to remember what to do. My breathing slowed as my legs fell into a comfortable rhythm, my shoes slapping against the only asphalt paved road in town. Trees surrounded me on both sides of the two-lane highway. My mind continued to race. My BFF’s face flashed in front of my eyes, then my old boyfriend’s, and I stumbled, flailing forward and just barely catching myself before falling flat on my face. I missed Brittany and Brad so much my chest ached and I couldn’t breathe; I hadn't talked to either of them since before moving here almost a week ago. Why did mom do this to me? Why did we have to move to this little God forsaken town at the edge of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from my friends?
I stopped running and doubled over, my hands on my knees as I tried to breathe through the onslaught of emotions and tears. School started in three days, my senior year. Instead of taking a limo and going to Fogo de Chao for Prom, I’d probably end up in a horse drawn buggy and be taken to Bubba’s. I shuddered and crumpled to the hot street, unable to hold in my misery any longer. My body shook as sobs consumed me. My life was over.
I’m not sure how long I sat on the side of the road bawling my eyes out. All I know is when the tears finally stopped, my face was blotchy, my eyes were swollen and my head was pounding. Cursing my mom for the headache she’d now given me, I picked myself up and continued down the road out of town, starting at a jog and finally going up to a full blown sprint. But as fast as I ran, I knew I couldn’t escape my new excuse for a life. I clenched my fists and pumped my arms harder, willing my legs to go faster. I felt like I was going to burst with the need to escape.
Out of nowhere, a guy appeared next to me. Dressed similarly to me in a pair of red running shorts and a white t-shirt stretched just right across his broad shoulders, he fell into step with me. I glanced at him, noticing how his golden hair gleams in the sunlight, but he didn’t look at me; his eyes stayed focused on whatever’s ahead of us. Irritated that my pity party was being crashed (no matter how hot this guy was), I sighed and sped up. He stayed in step with me. I glared at him and tried again. He was still there. A growl of frustration escaped my throat and he finally looked at me. I was momentarily sidetracked by his brilliantly blue eyes and stumbled once again. His hand snaked out and his arm wrapped around my waist to catch me before I fell. Blood rushed up my neck to my cheeks. Taken down by a pair of blue eyes. I would have giggled if I wasn’t so mortified. He chuckled as we stopped and he lets me go.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I nodded, irritated because I really want him to hold me again.
“I’m fine,” I replied, a little harsher than I meant to be. I winced but he didn’t seem affected by my tone.
“So, what are you running from?” he continued. I reached up, wrapping my long dark hair into a rope, and wrapped it around my hand to keep it off my neck. I lifted my chin and looked into his eyes, watching them wander down my body before they came back to mine. He didn’t even seem embarrassed to be caught checking me out.
“Who says I’m running from anything? Maybe I just like to run,” I replied with a smirk.
“If you like to run, I’m sure I would have seen you around before now.”
“How could you? I just got here.” My mood soured and I stared off into the trees, scowling at all their green leaves and brown bark. I shuddered, desperately missing the steel buildings and packed streets of my hometown.
“Where did you come from?”
His question snapped my attention back to him. I sighed, embarrassed that I had to blink more tears out of my eyes. Why did I have to cry in front of this hot guy? He was going to think I was absolutely mental.
“Chicago,” I told him, my voice catching on the word.
“No wonder you’re so miserable; this must be like your own personal hell compared to the city.”
“Have you ever been?”
“Kinda. My parents took my friends and me to Six Flags Great America one weekend last summer.” He rubbed the back of his neck like he was embarrassed by this. I laughed out loud, thinking he was adorable. He ran a hand through his gorgeous hair, dimples appearing in his cheeks when he suddenly smiled. My knees weakened.
“Going to Great America is nothing like going into the city,” I finally told him, my words breathy from all the fog suddenly clouding my mind.
“It’s the closest I’ve ever been; it’s not like I go north much.” His smile faltered and I wondered if he was irritated he has to admit that. I would have been. I nodded to let him know I understood.
“Someday I’ll take you to the city and show you all my favorite places to go,” I promised him, laying a hand on his sun-bronzed forearm. His warm skin made my fingers tingle and I sighed, this time content.
A twig snapped and a low growl emitted from the trees nearby. I instinctively moved closer to the guy—and realized I didn’t even know what to call him. A golden god? My thoughts were interrupted by another low growl and I gasped, my eyes widening as a small grey wolf stalked out of the trees to our right. It stopped not even ten feet away from us, lowered down on its haunches, its lips curled back as it snarled as us. The guy pushed me behind him and I clung to the back of his shirt, balling the soft fabric in my fists.
His back muscles rippled beneath my fists as he turned his head, keeping one eye on the wolf as he said out of the side of his mouth, “Whatever happens, don’t make any sudden movements or she’ll attack you.”
I nodded, wondering how he knew the wolf looking to make lunch out of us was female. Maybe because she was smaller, I decided as I gulped. The guy, now known as my hero, turned his attention back to the slowly approaching wolf. I peeked around him and dug my nails into his back, cowering behind him. His back rippled again and heat blasted me from his skin. I leaned into him, oddly comforted by his hot body.
“Go away; leave us alone,” he yelled at the wolf. I gasped, holding my breath as I waited for the wolf to pounce on us. The rippling of his body picked up tempo until it was like he vibrated under my touch, sending the heat and vibration into my body until I shook with him. His hands fisted at his sides. My lungs burned, begging for air, but I couldn’t release the breathe I held until the wolf was gone.
“I said go!” he bellowed. The wolf whimpered and scampered away. I wanted to do the same, my body forced into flight mode by his command. The air whooshed out of my lungs and I felt dizzy as he spun around to catch me, crushing my body against his.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice sounding more like a growl. His hand gently held my head against his massive chest. His heart beat steadily in my ear. I managed to move my head enough to look up at him and blinked up at his furrowed brow and curled back upper lip – he looked ready to take on a whole pack of wolves. He saw me glance up at him and immediately forced his features to relax, bring back his dimpled grin. I relaxed with him.
“Are you okay?” he asked again, his voice much gentler this time. I nodded and he stepped back, keeping his hands on my shoulders in case I wasn’t quite steady yet. I wasn’t. I swayed towards him and then shivered, cold without his warmth.
“You’re cold,” he declared, concern etched into his features. “Are you dizzy? Do you feel nauseous?”
I blinked up at him again before realizing he was waiting for a response. I said the only thing that came to mind. “You’re just so hot.”
He chuckled and I realized what I’d said. My cheeks burned, a new level of mortification setting in. I opened my mouth to explain only to snap it shut again; anything I said would only make this worse.
“It’s okay; I think you’re pretty hot, too,” he teased me, grinning at me with his adorable dimples. A smile tugged at my mouth as laughter bubbled up within me. Soon, both of us were laughing over the stupidity of our conversation. My laughter died when he draped an arm over my shoulders and turned me around, walking down the street the way I’d come. He was walking me home.
I melted a little at the sentiment and then the reality of what just happened crashed over me. We’d barely taken five steps when I stopped and looked up at him.
“How did you do that?” My voice shook with fear. He pursed his lips and let out a breath through his nose, flaring his nostrils. I suddenly wondered if he was going to snarl at me or yell like he had at the wolf. He sighed and some of my fear ebbed away.
“The trick to dealing with any kind of wild animal is that you have to show it who’s boss,” he declared and continued walking.
I mulled over that for a moment, biting the inside of my cheek as I replayed the scene with the wolf in my mind. Then I thought about everything I knew about wolves. They were pack animals, including when they hunted. They weren’t known for attacking humans unless they were hurt – and from what I could see, that bitch hadn't been hurt. But maybe her pups were nearby, I argued with myself and moved on. Wolves asserted dominance by fighting or wrestling and biting down on the other’s beck, making the lesser dominant wolf bow down. I pictured the guy biting that she-wolf’s scruff and making her submit. I shook my head; the wolf would have torn him to shreds. He’d done the only thing left to protect us.
“Well, thank you,” I told him with a smile. He returned my smile, visibly relaxing. I would my arm through his and we continued to my house.
“Do you go to Shadow Creek School?” I ventured nervously. We’d walked a while in companionable silence, something I’d never shared with a guy before. I always felt the need to fill the silence.
“Yeah, I’ll be a senior. What about you?”
“The same.” Yes! I wanted to jump up and down but thought that might make a bad impression. I bit back a smile and forced myself not to giggle.
“Now that we’ve established we’re both in school and you’ve saved my life, who are you?” I asked as we neared my house. He chuckled.
“Caleb Hunter. And you’re Jessica Teal,” he told me. My mouth dropped open and he had the decency to look embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck again. “It’s a very small town so new folks coming in are top news. Everyone knows who you and your brother are; it’s Bryce, right?”
I nodded, unable to form a coherent thought. I couldn’t believe he already knew who I was, or that the town was talking about us. I remembered my mouth still hung open and snapped it shut, now embarrassed I’d been gaping at him like a fish out of water. Again, I wondered what had possessed my mom to move us here. Nothing would be private if everyone was already in our business.
Caleb saw my discomfort and put his hand on my shoulder, drawing my attention back to him. My eyes met his and I immediately calmed down again, warm tingles spreading from my shoulder through my entire body. His brow furrowed and a frown turned down his smile as he removed his hand. I wondered what I’d done wrong. I swallowed hard and looked away.
“I guess I’d better go,” I said. He nodded, still watching me warily.
“Yeah, I’ll see you Monday at school,” he replied and turned to walk away. I sighed, my shoulders slumped as I continued up to my front door. When I turned back, he was already gone.
“Who was that?” my mom asked as I walked inside. Of course she’d been watching from the window! Because now that we were here, nothing was private.
“Nobody,” I snapped at her and headed back to my new bedroom. I needed to finish unpacking—and try to figure out what just happened with Caleb so I wouldn’t do it again when we saw each other at school.