I rounded the corner and leaned my back flat against the wall. I was already gasping for air, my hand on my chest, trying to calm my racing heart. I inhaled as deep as I could but it seemed that there was not enough air to breathe in. Closing my eyes, I clenched my fist and forced my legs to move.
He was going to find me soon if I stayed here. But I couldn’t breathe, my heart felt like it was going to explode. My body was trembling, and I could feel the chilly breeze of the night prickling every inch of my skin through the thin fabric of my shirt. The ground was damp and cold beneath my bare feet. My hands were shaking, either from anger or fear, I didn’t know.
The pounding in my chest was getting louder and louder. My ragged breathing was an eerie scraping sound against the cold air. It sounded like a sandpaper being raked against a wall. I was hiding behind an alley, in an abandoned part of a street. I was trying hard to remember how I got here when I heard a faint rustling of shoes against hard, granite floor. He found me.
Run, run, run.
I pushed myself away from the wall and ran blindly. I kept on running and turned left to the first alley I saw. An echoing noise of footsteps told me that he saw me and was now on my trail. A sound of a gun going off resonated on the walls, and I felt something whizzed by my left ear. I heard someone whimper and realized that it was me.
Another bullet whizzed and this time it hit the ground a few inches ahead of my foot. Panic surged in, and I ducked my head as low as I could, still running instinctively. I was running up to my limit, but it wasn’t fast enough. I felt like I was running and at the same time carrying something heavy being dragged on the floor.
I spotted another alley on the right several metres ahead and decided that I could hide there. I ran as fast as I could until my limbs allow. I made a sharp turn to the right and a cold metal touching my forehead stopped me on my tracks. It was not later when I realized what the metal was.
It was a gun pointed directly at my forehead.
I stopped breathing as if it would stop the man from pulling the trigger. I looked at him and knew that the chase was over. He finally had me at the end point of his gun. A grin slowly slithered up his face, emphasizing the wrinkles of the long scar on his cheek. His eyes glittered in determination.
His finger moved, ready to pull the trigger. I stood frozen, unable to run for my life. I watched as his fingers tightened its hold on the trigger. I was about to die. This couldn’t be happening. No… no, no, no—
“NO!” I screamed, my own voice filling the room. My bedroom. I was breathing hard, heart hammering against my chest, sweat trickling down my forehead. I closed my eyes and calmed myself. It was just a dream, I told myself repeatedly. It was just a dream but it felt real. Too real.
My limbs were trembling and I clambered out of bed. My foot caught up in the tangled sheets and I tripped but managed to hold onto the chair nearby. I kicked the blanket knotted on my feet and it went flying back to my bed. I scrambled to my computer.
The computer screens flickered to life and I entered my password. My hands shook as I pressed the keys. I cursed under my breath when a notification popped up, telling me that I entered a wrong password. I typed it again, carefully this time. The screens changed, noting me that the login was successful.
I stared at the three monitors which had twelve different area views from the security cameras of my apartment building. I installed some cameras in my flat, so it was the first view that I looked at. It was a view from my apartment’s living room. The other cameras were located in the kitchen, and some were overlooking the windows. Soft, dim light filled both areas, and nothing looked disturbed.
There was also a camera in the hallway of my apartment door, focused mainly on the elevator. There was no one lurking nor walking in the hallway so I shifted my attention to the other cameras. It was a view from the lobby of the building. There was no one there, except for the regular guy at the front desk who was on his phone, talking to someone. It was past two in the morning so it was not unusual that the lobby was deserted.
I checked the other security cameras from the main entrance, stairs, fire exits nearest to my flat, and the underground parking spaces. I stood up and peeked through the curtains, just to be sure.
When I was entirely sure that nothing looked out of place, I let out the breath that I was holding.
Safe, I assured myself. Safe, for now.
I locked my computer and climbed back to bed. I pulled the blanket up to my neck and curled into a protective ball. The tremors in my body ceased. I closed my eyes, forcing myself to go back to sleep. However, sleep has seemingly abandoned me.
Alone to fend for myself against my own demons. Alone. Just like before.
In my sleepless state, my mind wandered off to places that I myself rarely visited. If I stayed with my family five years ago, I would not be freaking out like this. The bad ones would still be after me, after everyone in my family, but I knew I would be safer.
But they would not stop. Not until my father paid the price.
Unfortunately, they saw me as the payment.
Right now, only one was after me—the same one who kidnapped me fifteen years ago. My left leg involuntarily jerked, reminding me of the scar on my feet. I closed my eyes tightly and forced other thoughts into my head.
A man was after me, but I considered myself lucky. And no, I was not crazy. As long as my situation had a possibility to get worse, it meant that my situation was better than before when I was with my parents.
Back then, groups of men would hunt me down, men who thought my family messed up their lives. Men who thought that my parents would suffer if I died. They were right on the first. I was not sure on the second one.
My grandfather was a tycoon. But his wealth and fame was not from good deeds and charitable works. I knew he ran guns, drugs, and other things I did not want to know about. Other things that were uglier, deeper. Other things that involved manipulating people and creating enemies in its wake.
When he died, my father took over, inheriting everything. The money, the business… even the debts. But those debts were not about money. Those were lives of people, brutally taken away.
However, my father, Cyrus Pierce, was smart. He built an empire to cover up his and my grandfather’s tracks. An empire called Pierce Industries.
On the outside, it was a company that competed with big-shot companies in the world market. Although my knowledge was limited about what was really happening in the core of the company, I knew something was definitely not right.
“Live. Find your home,” my grandmother’s voice echoed in mind.
Where was it, exactly?
If I stayed with my parents, I would be protected. Much more protection than I had right now. But I never felt home in their presence.
Would I be the person that they trained me to be? The weapon they trained me to be? If I did stay, I never would have met Ryle. I never would have put his life on the line, either.
Because of my “twisted mind and behaviour”, exact words from my father, I knew what life actually was. I got to enjoy, laugh, cry and feel cherished.
I missed those years. All I had to do back then with Ryle was to live normally. I did things normal people do, went with Ryle on his gigs, and enjoyed the life I never actually had. I never felt any fear… only happiness.
Of course, I knew my father was right when he said nothing was permanent. But I still let myself get attached to Ryle. We were happy. Then my mess somehow managed to catch up with my perfectly imperfect life. Nothing was permanent, indeed.
So I left as soon as I realized that his life, because of me, was in danger. To get him out of my messed up life, I left and didn’t look back. I was alone once again. Grandma was dead, Ryle was gone. Alone.
Alone to fend for myself against my own demons. Alone. Just like before…
“Vee! Get up and eat already! Uh, I sounded like a mom. Rise and shine, sunshine!”
I cracked my eyes open and squinted against the sunlight streaming all-out from my window. Heat grazed my skin and I welcomed the feeling. Just the heat, though. The sunlight was a different story.
“Jillian… the curtains…” I mumbled sleepily.
“What? You’re burning already, vampire?” I heard the sound of her muffled footsteps against the carpeted floor, then a dragging of the curtains sound came after.
Thank goodness, the sunlight torturing my eyes were now blocked. My eyes were still closed but I felt Jillian move back to the foot of my bed.
“Are you okay?” Jillian asked. “Vee, why don’t you try getting out of your coffin and eat?”
“Too early for that.” I pulled the blanket over my head.
“Are you sick or what? It’s noon already. You need to eat—”
“What?” I threw the blanket away from my body and sat up. Glancing to the clock on the nearby table, I realized that it was noon indeed. “Oh shit.”
“Yes, shit,” Jillian remarked.
I blindly reached for my eyeglasses on my bedside table. I climbed out of bed and stood up too fast. My vision blurred and the room spun, causing me to grab the edge of the nightstand. I closed my eyes and waited for the dizziness to stop.
“Hey, you all right?” Jillian asked, placing her hand on my back. When I assured her that I was okay, she continued, “It’s a rare sight of you oversleeping even if it’s Saturday. I woke you up ‘cause you needed to eat something.”
The spinning stopped and I looked at Jillian incredulously. “It’s Saturday?”
Her eyebrows raised at my inquiry. “Uh, yeah. Yesterday’s Friday so it means that today is Saturday. What’s the matter?”
“Say that again and it would be the word of the day.” She grinned and followed me to the living room.
“I need to bake something and meet up with Jay later, so thanks for waking me up.”
I continued to sprint to the kitchen but stopped and went back to my room to organize my bed and get my phone on the table.
Jillian stood at my doorway, and just then I noticed that she was wearing her attire for work. Her classic black pumps and slim ankle-length pants emphasized her mile-long legs and our height difference. I admired the sleek city blazer that I bought for her birthday three months ago. She let her long brown hair hung straightly almost to her waist. That perfect hair framed the delicate yet sharp features of her face. She was the epitome of professional and sophisticated.
“You’re gorgeous. You have work?” I asked.
“Yup. Remember the business conference I told you last week? It’s today.”
Jillian Clarke is an advertising assistant in a famous company. She loved everything about it. Because of this job, she was able to pay for her expenditures—mostly for clothes and shoes— and party during the weekends.
“So no bar-hopping for you today, then. In case you didn’t receive the memo, I want to remind you that you need to be sober in a business conference.”
She giggled. “I get that. But there’s no fucking way that I’ll let the fun drift away tomorrow. Hell, if we finish early, I’ll be pampering myself tonight.”
“Then you better go. Just by looking at you makes my self-esteem drop dramatically.” I saw her carefree grin before I entered the bathroom.
“A compliment from Sophia Shale herself. I am deeply honoured,” she said, her voice muffled by the door.
After doing my business in the bathroom, I went out and strolled to the kitchen. I spotted Jillian leaning on the counter, phone in front of her, her fingers flying.
“Wanna have some pancakes?” I offered, walking to the fridge.
She shook her head. “Thanks. But I ate already just an hour ago.” She pushed herself away from the counter and stared at me, eyes full of excitement. “Let’s go out tonight. Let’s do some tequila shots. When was the last time you got drunk? Two years ago?” She giggled.
I knew her intentions, she was distracting me from thinking about my messed up life.
“As much as I wanted to, I need to go meet Jay tonight at eight. Sorry, Jilly.”
She pouted and declared, “Okay, then. I’ll just go straight here after work and wait until you come home. Then we’ll drink until we’re drunk off our asses. We’ll celebrate your new achievement.”
I grinned as I remembered the call I got last week from Artificial Platform Gaming Inc., one of the most famous video game publisher, offering me a deal to work for them. If I would accept it, my current earnings from independently publishing my video games would be doubled.
I was so thrilled when they offered me the position. They rarely directly call someone to offer a job position in their company, given that there were already thousands applying for the job.
The thought lifted my spirits for a minute.
But accepting their offer meant stepping up in the public. That was the last thing I needed. I have worked so hard for the anonymity, creating video games by using a codename. In that way, I was able to earn money for the rent, save the rest of my earnings, and at the same time giving myself as much privacy as possible.
The company personally calling me should be a warning. A warning that my invisibility cloak was slowly drifting away, unveiling me behind it.
I went through these thoughts while keeping the smile on my face. Jillian may have sensed something but she didn’t ask me about it. She knew well when I did not want to talk and lay out my thoughts.
I sighed. “I’m just glad that they didn’t tell me that I need a degree. I told them about my lack of education and they said that they’ll just test me for my abilities.”
“You are already an expert on what you do. You may not have a bachelor’s degree or some other shit but just by looking at your game software, gaming companies will definitely be scrambling around to hire you,” she said, giving me an assuring smile.
I smiled back at her, her words pushing my worries aside. “Thanks, Jill. Anyway, I have some tequila in there,” I said, jerking my head to the cabinet above the sink, “I’ll be home around nine. Just promise me one thing: No guys.”
Jillian bought the tequila a week ago and stored it in my kitchen, for “possible future festivities”. And during this “festivities”, she would bring some guy she knows and trusts to introduce to me, hoping for me and the guy to induce some spark.
The spark never happened. I was too busy pouring some cold water on it before it happens.
“I promise not to bring any guys or any potential mates for you,” she pledged, raising her right hand up.
“I need to see the pinky swear,” I ordered, grinning like an idiot.
“Pinky swear!” She curled her pinky finger around mine. We laughed, the comforting sound reverberating through the apartment.
“It will be great!” Jillian continued, bouncing in excitement. Throwing her hand up in the air, she exclaimed, “Tonight’s girls’ night!”
“Reserve the energy for later. Right now, you need to go for work,” I reminded her.
She grabbed her cute black bag on the couch, still dancing on her way. She blew me a kiss and bid good-bye before closing the door behind her.
Right then, I knew it was going to be a long night.
* * * * *
About ten minutes before eight, I stopped in front of the seemingly-abandoned building. The last remnant of the sun disappeared over the horizon, a veil of ruby-red clouds streaking the twilight sky. The building was silhouetted against the setting sun’s rays, giving it a more deserted impression.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. The paper bag containing the brownies swayed as I struggled to pull out my phone. I texted Jay a few minutes ago, telling him that I was near from the location. I stared at my phone and read his reply: Ryan’s gonna pick u up. The one wearing a blue shirt.
I just assumed that Ryan was one of Jay’s friends. I didn’t know him, but Jay trusted him enough to escort me inside. I let my eyes wander around the area, trying to spot a man wearing a blue shirt. I adjusted my eyeglasses and squinted in the direction of the alleys on both sides of the building.
I heard Ryan before I saw him. The faint creaking of a door signaled me that he was coming from the right side of the building and I waited for him to come out. There was enough light to see that he was wearing a blue shirt, just like what Jay said. Behind him, another guy stepped out of the building. I walked towards them, my footsteps silent against the asphalt road.
To say that Ryan and the other guy were muscular was an understatement. I was still at least four yards away but their silhouette shouted a body of a well-built men.
Darn, I didn’t expect Jay to have body builders guarding me to the arena. I appreciated the thought, though.
Ryan jerked his chin up in a way a guy does and asked, “You Sophia?”
A man of few words, I see.
“Yes. Jay sent you?” I asked, glancing to another man behind him.
He jerked his chin again and I interpreted the action as a ‘yes’. I could not have any real conversation with this guy. It was like talking to a damn tree. A scary, big tree.
He spoke again, his deep, booming voice slightly startling me. “The fight’s nearly over. C’mon.”
A complete sentence from him, finally. Close enough.
The guy behind him went inside and I followed. Ryan stepped a couple of steps behind me. I scanned the dim-lit area and noticed that it was deserted. I knew that underground fights are sometimes literally underground or in the basement. The cheering noises were muffled that way, and it couldn’t be heard by any passersby. Or cops, for that matter.
We descended a flight of stairs, and I began to catch the distant roaring of the crowd. For every step I took, the noise became louder, the ground beneath my feet vibrated. After another couple of steps, I stepped down to what seemed like a gladiator fight in a coliseum. I couldn’t see the fighters amidst the patrons. Heck, I couldn’t even see any space at all.
Just as I expected, most of the audience were guys. Some were college guys and others were obviously not in college at all, based from their rough beards and wrinkled eyes. There were also some girls, most of them wearing pieces of fabrics too miniscule to be called as clothes. Their arms were all wrapped around on guys’ arms
I was wearing blue sneakers that have silver linings running on its side, which I thought was really cool, faded jeans, and a black tee that said “Oh hell yeah” across my chest. Considering that the girls here were wearing microscopic skirts and showed too much skin, I was way overdressed, but I was glad no one would mistake me as one of those girls and would try to touch me or something.
My worry about someone touching me was soon vaporized when Ryan stepped beside me, taking a protective stance. His body was like a concrete wall protecting me from anyone.
Before I stepped into the thick crowd, I inhaled deeply and realized that was my first mistake tonight. A combination of sweat, blood and alcohol poisoned the air. Another wave of cheering ensued. Every audience pushed the person in front of them to get a better view. I ignored everything, pushed my glasses up my nose, and took a step into the havoc.
Now I knew why Jay sent body-builders to guard me. Those who saw the two guys surrounding me automatically backed away, making a way for us. And those who were too busy to notice us were pushed rather forcefully away by Ryan. I figured that he was either a bouncer in this place, a well-known fighter, or he just didn’t give a damn.
Now I’m beginning to think that Jay sent them to protect me, but the brownies on my bag are the priority.
Clenching my fists, I stopped myself from covering my ears to protect them from the ear-splitting shouts and cheers of the crowd. However, as time passed by, I grew accustomed to the uproars and found myself grinning. Yeah, grinning. Adrenaline started to course through me, and I had a sudden urge to join the crowd on their tireless shouting. But the presence of the two men built like brick shithouses constantly reminded me that I needed to continue walking.
We continued to squeeze through the thick crowd. I could see from here our destination, a doorway that was restricted to the patrons. When were finally out and waiting in front of the closed door, I realized that the view is better in here. It was slightly more elevated than the rest of the place.
“Jay’s gonna be here in a few, after the fight,” Ryan notified, “The challenger’s dyin’ so Jay will be here quick.”
I gaped at him, trying to process what he said. He said it like he was commenting about the weather. The challenger was dying, and he was so cool about it. I sure hoped that ‘dying’ is just a euphemism for losing. This may be an underground fight but they wouldn’t let anyone die, would they?
A solid thud caught my attention and I craned my neck and tiptoed to see over the crowd. The room grew still and silent.
A referee—I assumed he was— walked into the arena and raised one of the fighter’s arm.
The fight was over.
The crowd erupted in triumph while my gaze was frozen on the winner’s face. He was several yards away but I could clearly see him. I could clearly see him, all right. Same hair—though this time it was more disheveled—same perfect features, same person all in all.
I took a sharp intake of breath. It was him again. The guy from the library. Hell, I didn’t even know his name. I always saw him in the library, so I was stunned to see him here. Stunned to see him inside that arena, arm raised by the referee. So much for the library guy, Mister Hot Stuff.
Despite of my surprised state, I decided to call him Mr. HS. I knew it was absurd to call him that, but I didn’t know his name.
And, uh, he was hot.
What on earth was he doing here? This was a freaking underground fight. A Grand Fight, not to mention. Grand fights are dangerous, but then all of the fights were. Bets here were often six-digits. The winner was also guaranteed a hell of a lot of money—
A memory of him wearing an expensive-looking watch flashed into my mind. I saw the watch the last time we were in the library, just before he left. That time I wondered how could he have it, and now the answer lies in front of me. He was now a champion in this fight, meaning he previously fought other contenders to achieve his rank. Every victory added to his pile of winnings.
And the way the crowd cheered for him, aside from him being the champion, meant that he was a well-known fighter in this circle.
He may be the same guy but his eyes and aura were completely different. HS’s eyes were slightly unfocused, his whole face masked by impassivity. The lighting in the area shadowed a part of his face, making him look more menacing. His aura emanated a barrier around him that was tangible even from where I stood. The nearest person to him was the referee, just inches away, but he seemed too distant. Detached from everyone.
His lips parted slightly as he breathed, his naked chest expanding from every breath he took. Those hard muscular chest and defined ridges of his abdominal muscles were tensed. He kept his blank stare on the opposite wall where he stood, oblivious to cheering crowd. Nevertheless, he looked like he was ready to wrestle and pounce anything that moved.
Why here, of all places? This was where I least expected him to be. The thought of him in an underground fight never crossed my mind. He was supposed to arrange and dispatch books, not a human being.
I slowly landed my feet fully on the ground, still trying to recover from the shock and thrill. Wait, thrill? No, it must be my adrenaline. My gaze travelling back to his stoic face, I found myself staring at those impossibly perfect dark eyes. He was staring back at me. I could feel his gaze boring a hole through me.
As he looked at me, something altered in him… like a fortress crumbling. As quickly as I saw the walls of the fortress collapsing, another steel cage slammed down over his features.
His jaw visible tightened and something flashed in his eyes.
Anger? Was he angry? With whom? Was he angry because I was here?
Jay stepped in the arena with a huge grin on his face and patted HS’s back, as a way of congratulating him. HS ignored him, and simply stared at me. Following my instinct, I stepped back, letting the crowd swallow me and block my view of him.
I lifted my free hand to my forehead, trying to calm myself. My skin felt unnaturally warm beneath my hand. I took another inconspicuous step to Ryan and used his wide physique to hide me. From what or whom, I didn’t know. I felt like a six-year-old playing hide and seek. Great.
Several minutes have passed since the fight concluded but the crowd was still ecstatic. Their shouting didn’t cease, it even seemed to increase as they collected their winnings. A numbness sensation crept through my arm down to my fingertips. I was gipping the paper bag too tight. Jay was not going to be a happy camper if his brownies got squashed.
“He’s here,” Ryan’s rumbling voice announced.
I looked up at him then shifted to the direction he was looking. Jay walked to us, a hey-I-just-earned-a-shitload-of-money kind of grin plastered on his face. He gave a quick nod to the two pillars beside me and they took off. I muttered a “Thank you,” before they left. I grabbed the flash drive in my back pocket that contained the software game.
“Ah, an angel in hell.” Jay grinned some more, and I wondered if it was possible for his face to split in half if his grinning continued. “Sophia, I got to admit, you look hot wearing that innocent face of yours in this kind of place.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. He cleared his throat and added, “Of course, it’s still extremely dangerous for you to be here. Let me help you with that paper bag.”
“Choose,” I shouted over the noise. I smiled sweetly at him, making his grin fade. “This,” I raised my right hand, showing the flash drive, “Or this?” I swayed the paper bag full of brownies in his face.
He tried to grab both but managed to grab empty air. His eyes went back and forth to the items on my hands.
“Can I have both?”
“Because—” I was interrupted by a quick hand grabbing the paper bag. I gaped at the guy who snatched it.
Mr. Hot Stuff, the library guy. It was him again. He was now curiously opening the bag and I was too startled to get it.
“What the fuck?” Jay complained, trying to grab the bag but failing to.
“Back off, Wilson,” HS threatened, his eyes glued to the thing on his hands. He pulled out a brownie and looked at it. Lifting his cold gaze to me, he asked, “You made this?”
I blinked at him. And did it again. He just came from the arena, knocked out a human being—not to mention he was shirtless, sweat running in rivulets down his body— and he wanted to know about my brownies?
Dazed, I nodded, and he popped the whole brownie into his mouth. His cold aura melted, and after chewing a couple of times, he gave a low, satisfied groan.
I felt my belly flutter. A light feeling swept through me as I stared at his pleased expression.
I immediately locked up that feeling in a dungeon and decided that at that moment, he was stupid. Stupid enough to shove a food into his mouth without even considering if it was poisoned. Furthermore, it was from a person he barely knew, i.e. me.
This hypothesis of mine was supported when HS grabbed another brownie inside the bag and put it in his mouth. Jay dashed to grab the bag but HS managed to swiftly evade the attack. I scrutinized the man devouring my baked goods. He seemed to be a different person from the one I saw in the arena earlier, but his sweaty bare chest told me he was the same one, all right.
The fact that he did not have any blood or bruise on his face didn’t escape my scrutiny. No cut lip, no swollen cheek, not even a scratch.
I knew he was dangerous. I was right.
I turned my attention to Jay.
Jay, on the other hand, was not a happy camper at all. He glared at HS who was still munching the brownies, and I was sure a series of curses ran through his head. I extended my arm, giving the flash drive to him. Jay’s eyes lit up again and he reached to take the item. HS was too busy eating so Jay managed to tuck the flash drive safely in his jeans’ pocket.
“I’ll bake again and give it to you,” I said as a way of comforting Jay, “What do you want me to bake?”
HS intervened, his mouth full of brown stuff. “More brownies.”
I tried to stop it, I really did, but my laughter escaped. I laughed at his answer, and he paused to look at me. His gaze warmed, a smile slowly forming on his face.
“Here.” HS thrust the bag into Jay’s chest.
Jay staggered a few steps back due to the force but his hand caught the bag. My eyes remained on HS’s hands as he let it fall down his side.
My eyes widened at the sight of blood streaking on his knuckles. I looked at his other hand and it was also smudged with blood. Why did I not see it earlier? When he ate the brownies, I should have seen the blood.
Then I remembered I was too busy looking at his face to pay attention to the blood streaking on his knuckles. Oh.
“You—” I said, but it came out as a whisper and I opened my mouth to say it loudly. “You have blood on your hands,” I finished with much calmer voice than I expected.
He looked down his hands then back to me. “Blood’s not mine.”
“I’ll clean up. Wait here. Don’t move,” HS commanded me before going in the doorway behind us.
My brow arched and I asked Jay, “Is he always that, uhm, commanding?”
“You won’t be able to imagine how commanding that bastard can be,” he answered, sucking the chocolate bits on his fingertips. “Though he’s the type of bastard I can trust my life with.”
I frowned at his answer. That was an unexpected topic shift. From the topic of Mr. Hot Stuff being commanding then him saying he trusts the guy with his life. A second later, I smiled at Jay, getting what he meant. He winked at me.
He was covertly saying to me that HS was one of the trustworthy guys. Hmm. Good to know, but I wouldn’t risk myself trusting HS too much.
I looked back at the doorway where Mr. Hot Stuff went in. He was a stranger to me, but then I realized that whenever he was around, I wasn’t all tensed up like I used to when a stranger is nearby. I knew he was dangerous, but I almost felt… comfortable around him.
My train of thoughts was interrupted when Jay cursed with all his heart. I knew it was because he saw that there were a few brownies left in the bag. Unfortunately, HS devoured most of them earlier. I bit my lip to keep from laughing.
My phone vibrated in my pocket. I grabbed it and stared at Jillian’s name flashing on the screen.
I answered the call and greeted, “What’s up?”
“Just reminding you that it’s girls’ night.” Her cheerful voice faded and she added, “Wait. What’s that noise? What the hell is going on in there? Vee, Are you okay?”
I sighed. “I just met up with Jay. I’m okay. I’m in… a basement.”
“I’m in a basement,” I repeated, raising my voice.
“Why the fuck are you in a chaotic basement full of people?”
“Did I tell you that Jay manages underground fights…?” My voice trailed off, steeling myself for a volcano eruption.
The volcano erupted violently. And this volcano is not a sissy one. I lifted my phone away from my ear to avoid the spewing ashes, lava and smoking rocks. When I thought the volcano has cooled down, I put the phone back to my ear. I could still hear Jillian’s rich vocabulary of profanities.
She cut me off with her serious voice. “Vee, A man is on the loose, stalking you, and will likely hurt you.”
A chill ran down my spine at her words. My hands started sweating.
Calm down, Sophia.
I took a deep breath before answering, “I’m going to be fine, Jill.”
Then, “Vee, You’re lucky I’m still with my co-workers or else I’ll drag your sorry ass through the phone.”
I was quite sure that wasn’t physically possible but I knew she was serious.
She demanded, “Give the phone to that Jay you were talking about.”
I turned my head to see Jay chewing the last chunk of brownie while listening to a guy talking to him. “Not happening,” I informed Jillian, “You are not talking to him. I’m safe. No need to worry about.”
“Vee,” she warned.
A plan to make her wrath bearable formed in my mind. I knew that wasn’t really a great idea for myself, but somehow, it would be fun. “I’ll make it up to you,” I offered, “I promise to hit the bar with you next week.”
Dead silence. That was a good sign. It meant that she was contemplating, thinking it through. She wouldn’t refuse my offer, hopefully.
She sighed heavily. “Fine. You promised so I know you’ll do it.” Then she gave me a brief summary of her day. As I heard the happiness in her voice, I smiled, happy to know that she was happy.
Jillian Clarke. The ever scheming Jillian Clarke. I grinned as she manipulated our conversation and headed towards another path. As I could see it, it was a dark and creepy path ahead. The way she saw it, it was a path full of rainbows and unicorns.
She was heading for the ‘Mr. Right Guy’ topic. I knew it.
“I met new associates today,” she started, “They were really brilliant, funny, and great to work with.”
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, thought she couldn’t see me.
“Someone even looked like Zac Efron.”
“Must have been a good eye candy, huh?”
She laughed. Then she continued—no one could stop Jillian Clarke once she started— in her suspiciously girly voice, “You see, he had a brother. He was also in the conference.”
There you go. See how she slowly weaved the ‘guy topic’ in?
“Okay,” I said cautiously. “So…?”
Then she dropped the bomb.
“He’s really nice and hot, and I’m thinking that it would be nice if you guys hang out.”
“I’m not interested in any guy, Jill.” I looked up and saw Mr. Hot Stuff several steps in front of me. He was freshly showered, his previously bare chest now covered in black t-shirt that strained across the muscles of his pecs. His worn jeans and heavy black boots looked good on him. Way too good on him.
Closing my eyes, I shook my head to clear the distraction. I lowered my voice and whispered, “Jillian, girl, my life’s already full of crap and troubles and I don’t want to add another one to the pile.”
“You’ll find your guy someday. Maybe you will find him in that freaking basement.”
I sighed. “Talk to you later, Jill.”
“Okay,” she muttered in defeat, but I knew better. She would continue to talk me through about it. “By the way, if you happen to meet a really hot guy in there, be careful. Present him to me first. I’ll test him out for you.”
“Oh God. I’m hanging up.”
She laughed. “See you later?”
“Yes. I won’t miss our girls’ night. Watch out, I’ll videotape you when you get drunk.” I hang up to the sound of her laugh. It was our inside joke, when she tried to record my drunkenness, thinking that she could use it to have a good laugh the next day. We had a good laugh indeed, but it was because all she managed to record was the ceiling, the floor, and her own extreme close-up face. She was too drunk herself.
“Videotape, huh?” HS asked, eyes bright with humor.
“Eavesdropping, huh?” I said, my tone a little uppity. “Then what do you think is the correct term for videotaping?”
“Digital recording,” he answered, giving me a lopsided smile. My breath caught at the sight of his dimples.
I immediately forced myself to recover and remarked, “That’s kind of a mouthful, isn’t it?”
His eyes went to my lips then back to my eyes. He cleared his throat then nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. I think videotape is fine.”
“I take it that you know each other,” Jay commented, reminding me of his presence. The man he was talking to earlier was nowhere to be seen. I forgot that Jay was nearby, watching my exchange of conversation with Mr. Hot Stuff.
“Yeah, we’ve met. In the library.” HS answered Jay, but his gaze remained on me. His eyes were laughing, and I was pretty sure he was recalling how we met.
I looked away from HS’s penetrating stare and focused on Jay instead. “Hey, I need to go. Enjoy the game. Contact me if there’s any problem.”
“Yup, sure. Thanks, Sophia. I’ll escort you out of the building.”
“I’ll do it,” HS presented.
I arched my brow at him. His eyes were determined, and I was sure that his determination was not going to waver at any moment.
I tried, anyway.
“Thanks, but I can go home by myself.”
He gave me The Look. Similar to the one that he gave me in the library yesterday. The you-got-lost-inside-a-library-and-if-you-went-home-by-yourself-you’ll-be-in-Egypt-tomorrow kind of look.
But I wouldn’t give in. No matter how warm and fuzzy I am with him, I would not risk it.
Warm and fuzzy?
I mentally kicked myself for what I just thought.
I looked at Jay to say that I would go with him but he was not looking at me.
“What about the loot? You gotta go and pick them up,” Jay directed to HS using the street talk.
I assumed that the loot refers to the cash prize for winning the fight. It was a championship, which was saying something.
Out of nowhere, an icy feeling slithered up my spine and I straightened, my eyes scanning the area for any possible threat.
“Not now,” HS answered Jay, then his eyes drifted behind me. Taking a step, he shifted me so I was behind him. “Back off,” he warned to someone in front of him.
I took a small side step and saw a man scratching his thick beard, his flabby arms swaying back and forth. The man, obviously drunk, put his hands up in front of him and said, “Chill, man. I was just…curious.” His eyes moved to me then down, down to my chest. He licked his lips and grinned, his body swaying unsteadily.
My eyes narrowed, but I ignored him. However, Mr. Hot Stuff was clearly not willing to ignore him.
“I think you didn’t understand,” he said, his voice dropping to a low menace. His voice was loud enough to be heard but low enough for the threat to cling into the air. I felt him tensing up in front of me, then he threatened, “Back the fuck off, or else.”
He let the last phrase hang up. He was once again the fighter I saw earlier in the arena. I could almost feel the tension palpitating from him. His back was faced to me so I couldn’t see his face, but I knew it was masked with coldness.
I felt Jay step up beside me.
The drunk man visibly swallowed but managed to glare at HS. Just for about a second, though. His glare then transferred to the floor and he staggered back to the crowd.
Mr. HS took a deep breath, his shoulders lifting up and releasing rigidity. I turned to Jay and his eyes were focused on HS. Jay’s brows knitted in confusion, lips pursed. His eyes slid to me then back to HS again.
He did this again, a knowing smile lifting the corners of his lips. The smile later turned into a grin. The reason why, I didn’t know. I did not want to know.
Mr. Hot Stuff’s body started to turn. I immediately took a step back, because if I didn’t, he would be in my personal space. Too close in my personal space. And I did not want anyone to be in my personal space. It was my personal space.
For self-assurance, I took another precautionary step back, giving a good four feet between us. I caught Jay raising his brow at me, grin still plastered on his face.
“You’re going with me,” HS commanded, startling me. I opened my mouth to object but he raised his hand in front of him, palms facing me, to shut me up. “Sophia, don’t argue, don’t protest.”
“I can go home by myself,” I argued and protested.
Jay’s grin widened and he crossed his arms on his chest. That idiot, he thought this was entertaining!
“No, you can’t.” HS jerked his head towards the direction of the stairs. “Let’s go.”
I planted my feet on the ground and declared, “I’m going with Jay.”
His eyes narrowed at me, his expression similar to the one when he first saw me here. The muscled on his jaw tightened. He was obviously pissed off.
Why was he even pissed at me? It wasn’t like my fault to be stared at by a pervert. Well, not really. The fact that I came here in the first place made it partly my fault. But, still. He didn’t have a valid reason to be Mr. Grumpy at me.
Him being pissed off was not an enough reason to back down. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t back down, either.
“What part of ‘you’re going with me’ did you not understand?”
“All of it," I answered.
His face became pissed-off scary. “Yeah? How’s that?”
“Because…” I scrambled my mind for an answer. “I speak a different language,” I finished stupidly.
There were some bad and good news to my recent idiocy. The good news was his expression softened, the corner of his lips twitching in amusement. Bad news was he thought that my stupidity was amusing. Another bad news was, he still did not give up.
“Let’s go, Sophia.”
“I don’t even know your name!” I burst at him.
I caught Jay’s widened eyes and opened mouth. Then he threw his head back and laughed. Laughed! Sorry but I failed to notice the humour in this situation.
Although his laugh was all-out, the noise from the crowd muffled it, sparing us the glances from other people. Thank goodness.
“You don’t know his name?” Jay asked incredulously between his laughs. “Like, really? You don’t know?”
I glared at him, thinking that I would make him suffer next time.
He continued, “Here I thought you knew each other for days!” He laughed some more, then looked at Mr. HS. “The way you talked to her made me thought that there was something going on between you two.”
I decided to cut through Jay’s happiness. “What’s his name?” I snapped.
Jay was looking at HS so I swung my gaze to HS and saw that he was containing himself from laughing.
“Did you ask him?” Jay questioned me.
Did I ask for his name?
Nope. Never did.
Jay, who clearly thought this was really funny, laughed again. He completely forgot my question.
“Let’s get you home,” HS stated, distracting me from mentally strangling Jay.
“I’m—” I stopped when he put his hand at the small of my back, gently directing me to move forward.
My breathing halted when I felt his hand. His hands flexed against my back and I stared up at him, his eyes intent on mine. He just kept on staring at me, his eyes intense and they started to darken. I swallowed and not handling the staring contest, I turned my stare to Jay. He was now just chuckling, but as he caught my eyes, he nodded slowly, answering my unspoken question.
“Fine.” I told Mr. Hot Stuff using my uppity voice, indicating that I could not accept my defeat.
Jay turned his head to the side and jerked to our direction. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Ryan walked to us.
“Bye, Sophia. Sorry, can’t tell you his name. You’ll know it some time.” Jay winked at me, nodded once to Mr. HS, and then disappeared through the doorway.
I didn’t see but sensed that HS was smiling at me. I refused to raise my head up and see if there was an actual smile on his lips. No matter how tempting it was, I focused my eyes in front of me and started walking with Mr. Hot Stuff beside me. Not too far beside me, but not too close, either. His arm were stretched so his hand rested on my back.
This time, I realized, the reason why Ryan was behind us. We did not need him to make a path for us to walk in. The people in our way, the moment they saw us, automatically stepped aside to let us through.
It could not be because of Ryan; because previously, he just shoved the people out of our way. And I was pretty sure the crowd was not parting because of me—my black fitted tee and jeans were not really attention-grabbers. The crowd was parting because of the guy beside me. His left hand that was previously on my lower back started to glide, stopping at the other side of my waist. Using his hand on my waist, HS pulled me to his tensed body, pulling me as far away as possible from the crowd and as close as possible to him.
He was not in the middle of the distance spectrum anymore. He was too close, his scent shielding from the nasty smell of the basement. And boy, he smelled good. Cologne or body wash… and something else. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but whatever it was, it drove me crazy— in a good way.
Since the top of my head was only a couple of inches above his shoulders, I felt safe with his strong, tall body beside me. The way his hard body was in a protective stance made my belly flutter.Then something settled within me. Something I’ve never felt before. It felt funny and weird.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his black shirt and remembered I was also wearing a black shirt.
The shouts and noise of the crowd gradually died down as they stared at us. Even the drunk men, the men with almost-naked girls around their arms and the ones who have bills of cash at their hands stopped and gaped.
A few seconds later, the havoc morphed into silence and we became the center of attention. The crowd’s eyes swung back and forth to me and Mr. HS, assessing us closely, and for some, drunkenly.
I shut them out and as we walked through, I kept my eyes in front of me, trying to be oblivious yet alert. Maintaining my mind blank, I voided any emotion from my face.
Though I admit that I could not ignore Mr. Hot Stuff’s body heat mingling with mine.