Friday, November 9, 2012

Teaser - Bodyguards, Chapter 2

Three days until the release of Bodyguards on Monday! After chapter 1 yesterday, here's chapter 2, and one of the heroes, Brad...


Every time the sunlight streaking through the coffee shop window caught Brad’s tattoo, Vivien found herself staring at it. It shouldn’t have been possible for ink to glimmer like that, should it? She wasn’t an expert in tattoos in any way, but a few of her college peers sported one or more, and none of them gleamed like the intricate spirals drawn inside Brad’s left wrist, linked together to resemble a rough circle. It seemed to come to life in the light, the long, tendril-like designs giving the illusion that they shifted to better reflect the sun.

One of these days, Vivien would ask Brad about the tattoo, whether it used some special ink and what it meant. One of these days, she might even manage to have an actual conversation with him. He was so shy that it was hard to get him to talk. Things were much easier when they ran together; she didn’t have to try to find a topic of conversation then. She only needed to keep up with his pace and try not to look at him too intently and give herself away. But working with him on their political-science class project, especially after Anabel had reminded her how transparent her feelings could be at times, was a lot more problematic. Good thing they were not alone.

“Do we all agree, then?” Clarice asked, tapping her pencil against her notebook, a drumbeat urging them onward.

Vivien nodded along with Joe, the fourth member of their group. She didn’t care one way or the other about which of them started the presentation. She was ready, having done more than her fair share of the research, and could have presented their topic—non-governmental organizations and their social impact in third-world countries—on her own if she had needed to. Of course, that would have meant not working with Brad and that would have been too bad, his shyness notwithstanding.

Only after Vivien had agreed did Brad follow suit. She had noticed before that he always spoke after she did, invariably echoing her opinions. It couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? She wondered if it was another effect of his shyness and if he was trying to give her a sign. Wishful thinking on her part, maybe, but she liked the idea.

The strange thing was, his shyness only manifested toward her. Just a moment ago, he’d been disagreeing with one of Clarice’s points, calmly countering each of her arguments with facts and numbers until she had conceded he was right and had made a few changes to her part of the presentation. Vivien wasn’t the only one who had researched their topic thoroughly. Then again, she always tried to join groups in which the other students were more interested in working hard than partying, like she was.

“So, we’re all set, then?” Joe asked in a deep voice that always seemed so startling, coming out of his lithe, almost diminutive body. Without waiting for an answer, he closed his laptop and began to stuff it in a messenger bag. “I’ll redo those slides and email you guys a copy by the end of the day. Should we meet again tomorrow and run through it one last time before the class? Same time?”

It was a plan. With a quick goodbye, Joe hurried to his first class. Clarice followed soon after. As she left the table, she looked back, her long braid swinging behind her. She winked at Vivien over Brad’s shoulder. Vivien’s cheeks warmed suddenly, and she hid her smile behind her coffee cup. Anabel wasn’t the only one who had noticed her interest in Brad.

Vivien only took a small sip. The coffee had long since lost its warmth. The flavor, at least, remained strong and rich enough to wake any sleep-deprived college coed. She’d been drinking very slowly, hoping without really admitting it to herself that Brad might linger as well. She tried to peer into his mug of hot cocoa but couldn’t tell how much was left.

“I’ve got another half hour before my first class,” she said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “How about you?”

Brad shrugged and offered a small, lopsided smile. “It started twenty minutes ago.”

She paused with her mug halfway to her lips and set it down again, forgetting to drink in her surprise. “Why didn’t you say something? We could have ended early if you had somewhere to be.”

He ducked his head, looking down into his mug as he slowly rolled it between his palms. “It’s all right. I can afford to skip one class.”

Vivien only realized she was staring at him when he peeked up at her with clear blue eyes. She quickly looked away, letting her gaze wander over the coffee-shop crowd. The strong aroma of slowly percolating coffee filled the room. Most customers at the stainless steel tables looked like students; the coffee here certainly beat the flavored water dispensed by vending machines throughout the campus, and the prices were reasonable.

How many of the customers were waiting for their next class as she was, Vivien wondered. And how many were ditching to keep someone else company? Was it another sign?

How badly was she into Brad, really, that she wondered if every little thing he did was a sign about his feelings? She had tried to analyze her attraction to him and figure out what it was exactly about him that made her heart flutter. He was good-looking, certainly, his body toned, his features striking, and his eyes full of warmth even though they were icy-blue, but she had always believed a man would need more than looks to catch her attention. She couldn’t say they had a lot in common, not when the only thing she knew for sure about him was that he enjoyed running as much as she did. They’d taken lessons from the same fencing club, too, but that had been years earlier. If only he talked with her as easily as he did with other people...

When she looked back at him and caught him observing her, she made up her mind. She had waited long enough for him to take the first step—well, the second, if suggesting they jog together had been the first. If he really was that shy, she had no problem taking the initiative.

“What kind of music do you have on there?” she asked, pointing to the MP3 player by Brad’s elbow on the table.

Rather than answering, he pushed the player across the table toward her, inviting her to see for herself. She felt a small thrill at that. She knew a look through her own playlists could tell a lot about her, and she wondered if the same held true for Brad.

As she thumbed through a long, unorganized list, all Vivien could tell was that Brad had eclectic tastes. There was anything and everything on his player: classical music, country songs, the latest pop tunes, golden oldies, even some rap.

“Oh, wow, is there anything you don’t like?”

Brad smiled. “I’m still looking for it.”

Laughing softly, Vivien thumbed back to the name of a familiar band.

“Have you ever heard The Sound Bytes in concert?” she asked, noticing Brad had almost all of the local band’s songs.

“I haven’t, no. Have you?”

“Not yet, but I really want to. I’ve heard they’re playing at a club downtown in a couple weeks.”

She stopped there, giving Brad a chance to pipe up and invite her. When a moment had passed and he hadn’t done anything more than take a sip of his cocoa, she figured she might as well forgo subtlety altogether.

“It’s no fun going to a concert alone. Would you like to go with me?”

Nervousness caused her last words to come out in a rush of air. For a few seconds, Brad observed her as though he hadn’t quite understood what she had said.

Then he frowned and asked, hesitating on every word, “You... You don’t mean for me to go with you a date, do you?”

Vivien’s heart stammered. If her face grew any hotter, she might self-combust.

“Actually I do,” she said with a small smile. “I mean, we’ve known each other for a while now, and I like being with you, and I thought maybe you liked being with me, too.”

That was Brad’s cue to tell her that of course he liked being with her, that was why he had suggested they run together, that was why he had joined her presentation group for this project, and that was also why he was still there, sitting across from her in a coffee shop rather than in a classroom.

Brad didn’t say any of these things, however. Instead, he frowned a little more deeply and cleared his throat.

“I’m afraid... I’m sorry, I don’t think that would be proper.”

Vivien blinked twice, then stared at him. If he had said he wasn’t into her, she could have accepted that. If he had made an excuse about being busy, she could have graciously taken the hint. But proper? What on earth did that mean?

Out of the blue, Anabel’s comments about how Brad wasn’t for her came back to Vivien’s mind. Maybe Anabel had been right, because Vivien certainly didn’t need anyone in her life who strung her along before calling a potential relationship ‘not proper.’

“You know what?” She stood abruptly enough that her chair started to fall back. She caught it with a trembling hand. “You’re right. It was a bad idea. Sorry I brought it up.”

She slipped the strap of her book bag over her shoulder and started to turn away, but changed her mind and looked back. Stunned was an interesting look on Brad.

“By the way,” she added, hanging on to her calm by her fingernails, “I won’t be able to run with you tonight. Or tomorrow for that matter. Actually, I think I won’t be running for a while.”

This time, she didn’t stop or look back, not even when Brad said her name. She’d been an idiot, but she did have some shred of dignity left.

* * * *

The day dragged by, each class seemingly twice as long as normal. She shared one of those classes with Brad, and those two hours were the longest yet. He always sat in the back of the room, and the entire time she imagined he was looking at her. What was he thinking? Could he even understand why she had thought he was sending her signals he was interested in her? Or was he oblivious to how his own actions could be perceived, maybe?

When she gathered her things at the end of the class, she saw him approach from the corner her eye, his progress impeded by a few chatting students. She didn’t know if he intended to talk to her; she didn’t want to know. She’d felt enough humiliation for one day. She hurried out, ducking into the first stairwell and rushing down the steps.

She had planned to stop by the library for an hour or so, but Brad sometimes studied there as well and she did not want to see him, and talk to him even less. Only too soon she would have to sit with him again; hopefully Clarice and Joe would run interference. She’d make sure she wasn’t paired up with him in future projects, but it was too late to change groups now. At least the presentation was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon so things wouldn’t drag out much longer.

At lunchtime, she avoided the sandwich shop where she usually grabbed a bite; it was one of Brad’s favorites, too, and they’d sometimes waved at each other across the room or even shared a table. Something else she had taken as a sign.

After her last class, she took the bus home, sitting by herself in the back, her eyes drifting over the city outside the window without really seeing it, like she heard the music from her MP3 player without really taking it in. She had lived in this city for as long as she could remember, but sometimes the urban landscape felt alien, as though she were not supposed to be there.

Maybe moving out of her aunt’s house wouldn’t be enough. Maybe she needed a complete change of scenery. It had been pure luck that the local university had such a strong political-science department when it was what Vivien planned to choose as her major. Maybe she could transfer to another college, another place, meet new people, live on her own...

A cheerful song by The Sound Bytes came up next on her playlist. She fumbled with the player to skip ahead. She didn’t feel like listening to that band at the moment, and even less to a happy tune. She might not want to hear it for quite a while, actually, or at least until the memory of how she had humiliated herself faded.

Abstractly, she knew she was over-reacting. She had misread Brad’s interest in her, but that didn’t mean she had to stop listening to one of her favorite bands simply because it was now associated with a bad memory, or even that she had to transfer to a different school so she wouldn’t see him on campus anymore.

Just the same, with the sting of rejection so fresh in her mind, she had a hard time not feeling sorry for herself. It had been a long time since she had had a boyfriend, and while she refused to let her happiness depend on someone else, she couldn’t deny that she had nurtured a few fantasies in the past weeks while she waited for Brad to be ready to ask her out. What a fool she had been...

Caught in her thoughts, she almost missed her bus stop, jumping to her feet to pull the cord at the very last moment. The bus left her practically on her doorstep, and she walked up the driveway with her book bag bouncing against her hip. As she came in through the kitchen door, her gaze flew at once to the light above the closed door to the front room. Lit, it signified that Anabel was with a client and that Vivien shouldn’t disturb her.

Vivien went up to her room to set her bag down and change into her running clothes and shoes. She had told Brad she wouldn’t run anymore, but what she had meant was that she wouldn’t run with him. There were other places where she could jog without risking seeing him. She stopped briefly by her computer to check her email. As promised, Joe had sent all of them the corrected slides for their presentation. Vivien left that alone; she’d look at it later. Despite herself, she was disappointed that there was no other email waiting in her inbox. A very small part of her had hoped that maybe Brad...

She shook her head and pushed that treacherous thought away. She didn’t want to hear from Brad. Not at all.

When she returned downstairs, the light was still on above the front-room door. It was all right; she’d talk to Anabel after running, and maybe by then Vivien would have calmed down enough that she’d sound reasonable rather than agitated when she told Anabel she was thinking of moving out on her own.

She started down the street, stretching her arms above her head, her keys jiggling lightly in her zipped right pocket. Her phone was in the left, just in case. She walked to the corner, then started jogging. The park she was going to was two blocks away, and it only took her minutes to reach the path of beaten earth.

For the first time since she had made a fool out of herself at the coffee shop, Vivien’s mind started to clear. She concentrated on her breathing, on keeping her strides even and regular, and the rest of the world slowly disappeared.

She had started running during her senior year of high school when the fencing studio where she had taken lessons for six years had closed its doors. It had been a very different kind of exercise, and for the first time the only adversary she had needed to confront had been herself. She ran every day, rain or shine, whether she felt like it or not, and took a quiet pride in her discipline. It didn’t matter how long she ran, or how fast, or even how far. A few minutes were always enough to give her peace.

It had been a couple years since she had last jogged through this park. It was the closest to her home, but the path became muddy and slippery when bad weather hit, and she’d found another place to run, with gravel-covered paths and flowering shrubs, that she could use anytime. That was where she had run with Brad, where he would be waiting for her, maybe, even despite what she had told him.

She frowned as her thoughts returned to Brad once more, and made a conscious effort to chase him from her mind again. Why think of him, when she was in such a nice place? In the afternoon light, the park was like an ode to spring, every imaginable hue of green bursting with life, from the pale, tender green of new grass to the deeper colors of evergreens. She’d tried going to the campus gym and running there on a treadmill, but she had missed this: nature’s colors, the earthy smells on the wind, peeks of small animals or birds, the occasional barking of a dog in the distance.

Everything changed in the blink of an eye.

A streak of silver flashed from somewhere behind her and hit a cluster of trees. The next thing she knew, a man was falling from the cover of the trees. He lay still across the trail, something thin, long, and silver sticking out of his chest. Vivien came to a dead halt when she realized it was a knife.

Her eyes grew wide. Her breath hitched in her throat. She took one step forward toward the man, but stopped again as someone came out of the same cluster from which he had fallen. The man was dressed all in black, and he had a knife in each hand. He looked down at the man on the ground—the man dressed exactly as he was—then back up toward Vivien. He wasn’t looking at her, however, but at something behind her.

Her heart hammering in her chest, Vivien started to look back, only to see someone run from behind her to come stand between her and the man with the knives. He, too, was dressed all in black and carried a weapon.

She gasped when this third man glanced at her and said urgently, “Run, Vivien!”

It was Brad.

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