Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter Three

Hello again! I’m so glad you’re still reading! If this is your first week reading Lion’s Pride, head over to the main page to learn more and catch up! 

Miss Chapter Two? Click Here!

Chapter Three

My nice, long run should have tired me out. Instead, meeting Piter had just keyed me up. At first, I just stayed awake, excited to have met a shifter, maybe even a friend, who wouldn’t awkwardly treat me like a princess. Unless he was from Glenhela, I wasn’t his princess anyway. And there was a very slim chance he was actually from Glenhela. There were only a handful of wolves in the kingdom.

Somewhere along that train of thought was when I realized that Caernen was the closest wolf kingdom. The odds were good, too good, that Piter was from Caernen.

After that, I just stared into the darkness, up at the ceiling above my bunk. I couldn’t decide if making a friend from Caernen would be good or bad. It could be quite positive. Becoming friends with Piter could give me a look into Caernen that I couldn’t get from Danica, or even my brother. Piter would be a source outside of the palace. Heck, he could even talk to Danica and my brother and help them understand what the people of Caernen were thinking.

Or it would be terrible. If I announced my brother’s wedding to the future Queen of Caernen and people opposed to it found out I had gone to school with someone from that city. Would they think it was a conspiracy? What if Piter himself was against the wedding?

It was just all one massive headache. So much for escaping to school…

I felt like I was up the entire night, head spinning. I was almost dreading our next romp.

***~***

“You look tired,” Amanda said to me, while we waited in line for breakfast.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“That sucks.”

I nodded in agreement. After our plates were loaded up, we joined Olga and Janice at what had become our “usual” table. Partway through breakfast, a couple of male humans and a female came over.

“Mind if we join you?” one male with blond hair asked.

“Of course!” said Janice. “This is Devon,” she pointed to the blond. “And Alan and Edith. They’re in my English class. Guys, this is my roommate, Olga, and our friends Amanda and Lani.”

Devon sat down next to me and smiled.

“What are you studying?” he asked me.

“Undeclared,” I said. “I’ll figure something out eventually.”

“Laid-back, I like it! I’m doing Computer Science.”

“Sounds tough.” Shifters kept it simple. We had access to the same technology, but had kept our lives much less advanced than humans. I liked it that way.

Devon nodded. “Worth it though, I think.”

The two of us talked for the rest of the meal. He seemed like a fun human. The university had an Ultimate Frisbee club that Devon had joined. They met every Thursday and he convinced me to give it a try.

When breakfast was over, all seven of us walked across campus together, gradually splitting off for our classes. As chance would have it, Devon and I had class in the same building.

“Three hour class?” he asked me. When I nodded he said, “Me too. Wanna get lunch after?”’

“Sure.”

I assumed he meant at the dining hall, but when we met up after class, he started walking the other direction.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“There’s a little shopping center up here, right off campus,” he said. “They have a good pizza place.” Devon stopped walking and turned to me nervously. “If you… like pizza.”

I laughed. “Yeah.”

“Great then, okay.” He kept walking and I hurried to catch up to him.

It was the first time I had left campus since the semester started. Although the shopping center was literally right next door. We crossed a street that led into campus from the main road and boom, we were there in the parking lot. The restaurant was a small, family-owned pizza parlor. Cozy, in fact. The walls were painted with scenes from Italy, mostly obscured by university memorabilia. It looked like the place had been open nearly as long as the university had existed. They had tons of black and white photographs from old college events and things like old jerseys and pennants. They even had a retired crew boat hanging from the ceiling.

Lunch was served by an extremely friendly woman who insisted we call her Mama. She asked our names and I had a feeling that she’d remember them if we came back. When the check came, Devon snatched it and paid for both meals.

“You don’t have to pay for me!” I cried.

“I invited you,” he said with a smile.

Had I just… wasn’t that what people did on dates? Had I just gone on my first ever date? And with a human at that! Could I ask if this was a date? Would that be weird?

“Fine,” I said instead. “I’ll just owe you.”

His smile turned shy. “You can pay next time… if you want to do this again.”

A second date? If that’s what this was. Well, why not? “That’d be great.”

Devon’s shoulders visibly slumped with relief. It was a date! “Awesome.”

We walked back to campus in comfortable silence. Was I crazy to go on a second date with a human? I half expected a kiss when we split up for our classes, but it didn’t happen. I couldn’t decide if I was disappointed or not. It would be my first kiss, after all. Did I really want to share that with a human? Did it matter that much? Maybe first kisses weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

I was still feeling a little torn when dinner time rolled around. Devon wasn’t in the dining hall, which didn’t help my indecision whatsoever. As I ate, I glanced around. It had become habit to look for the guy who had been staring at me the first night. I hadn’t seen him since. At first, I looked for him because he made me nervous. I wanted to catch him staring again. But, as time went on, I felt more like I was keeping an eye out just to be sure I hadn’t imagined him. Where was he? One paranoia-fueled possibility was that he was deliberately staying out of sight. I hoped not.

No sign of him. Now, I was free to start thinking about my upcoming run with Piter. Great. One more thing to worry about; a wolf who might have been from Caernen. Less than a month and I had a potentially imaginary stalker, a human who might want to date me, and a shifter who could be from the worst kingdom he could possibly be from.

“Only me,” I muttered.

When I got back to my room, I called my brother.

I opened with, “I need advice.”

“Okay.”

“So, there are three guys.”

“Good lord, Lani. You’re skipping the love triangle and going straight for the square?”

“Larkin,” I groaned. “Not like that… not all of them.”

“Then, like what?”

“Well… one I only saw once.”

“Um… okay?”

“He was staring at me. Like, creepy staring.”

I could hear concern in my brother’s voice. “You think he recognized you?”

“I don’t know. But I haven’t seen him since. It was only one time. I just… I dunno, I can’t forget it.”

“Keep your eyes open, I guess. Don’t let Mom’s paranoia rub off on you though.”

“Yeah,” I laughed.

“Next?”

“He’s human and… I think we went on a date today.”

“Whoa!”

“Is that a bad idea?”

“Why? It’s not like you’re going to marry the guy.”

“Well, no.”

“So? Date. Have fun. Isn’t that what college is all about?”

I flopped back onto my bed and smiled. Talking things over with my brother always made me feel better. Sometimes I just needed a second opinion. I hoped that wouldn’t change when we got older. Once I was Queen, I’d need him more than ever.

“You really are helpful, Larkin.”

“I know.” We both laughed. “Sooo?” he finally drawled.

“He’s a shifter.”

“Ouch. Does Mom know there’s another shifter there?”

“No.”

“Where’s he from?”

“I didn’t ask! I know better.”

“What is he?”

I sighed. “He’s a wolf.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah.”

“How far from you is Doreva?” Another wolf kingdom.

“Further than Caernen.”

“What do you guys… do?”

“So far we just shifted and went running. Doing it again tonight.”

“Remember what I said about a love triangle…”

“No! He is not on the table. He’s just another shifter.”

“What if he wants more?”

“I’m the Princess of Glenhela.  I can’t get involved with him, especially if he’s from Caernen.”

“He doesn’t know that.” Larkin hesitated. “Uh… does he?”

“No!”

“Well, then that’s what your human boyfriend is for. Now you have an excuse to not date the wolf.”

“I don’t know if I want a human boyfriend either.”

“Sucks to be you.”

“Brat.”

“Jerk-face.”

“Punk!”

“Butthole… don’t tell him you’re from Glenhela, Lani.”

“I won’t.”

“And I know it’s hard, but don’t do anything stupid.”

“Aww, it’s almost like you care, Larkin.”

“Almost.”

My door opened and Amanda came in with Olga.

“Gotta go. Love you.”

“Yeah, you too.”

I hung up and smiled at them. “Hey.”

“Who was that?” Amanda chirped.

“My brother.”

“Ahh, I thought it was Devon.”

“What?!”

“I saw how he was looking at you during breakfast,” she teased. “You guys would be a cute couple.”

I laughed nervously. She and Olga exchanged a knowing look. I considered just skipping running. How had things gotten so complicated so quickly?

~~~*~~~

In the end, I decided that I needed the exercise. I met Piter back on the stairway.

We talked, briefly, as we walked toward the woods. Just about our classes and how we were enjoying school. Nothing about where we were from. In fact, we could have been humans for all we talked about being shifters. And then, we ran. No words at all. Sometimes we kept pace, other times we spread apart. Wolves were marathon runners, lions were sprinters. When it was over, we walked back to the dorm together.

I felt relieved. This was the level of relationship I could safely maintain. Maybe even a bit more friendly. I hoped that Piter felt the same way. With any luck he didn’t want to get too close to a lion.

“I don’t think we should risk this three days in a row,” he said when we reached the stairway.

“I agree.”

“Tuesday, again?”

“Perfect,” I said in relief. Nothing as humans. Keep it shifter-business. I liked it.

“Night then.”

“Goodnight.”

I lay awake again, tumbling it all around in my head. Maybe I was overcomplicating things. I didn’t know the guy was staring at me. And, even if he was, what were the odds that it was because he knew my identity?

And Piter… I’d deal. I came to college to get away from the worries about the future. Who cared, really, if he was Caernen? One lone college friend wouldn’t affect the fallout from the marriage one way or the other. If we even stayed friends. Maybe he’d transfer after this semester. Maybe our schedules wouldn’t line up. Maybe another wolf shifter would show up and they’d become best buddies and forget all about me.

As for Devon… who cared? It was just as uncertain as Piter. And what was the harm of having a human boyfriend?

Feeling much better, I snuggled under my covers and fell asleep.

~~~*~~~

Breakfast was just me and Olga, until Janice’s classmate Edith joined us.

“You cool if I sit here?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Olga. “So, where are you from?”

“The northwest,” said Edith. “Little podunk town that nobody has ever heard of. This is the big city for me.”

We laughed.

“Some big city,” said Olga, who I knew was from Boston. “You’re likely to get eaten by a coyote here.”

I bit back a snicker. Or a lion.

“Come to my town, you’ll get eaten by a bear,” Edith said.

“Bears?” Olga cried. “Not like in town?”

“Yeah, they go through the garbage and stuff. See ‘em all the time.”

“Jeez!”

Edith grinned. “So, either of you have a homecoming date yet?”

Olga snorted. “No way. Dances aren’t my scene. I’ll be at the football game though!”

I was excited for homecoming. Not so much the dance, but the entire package of celebration and school pride.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Going to the dance?” Olga asked, wrinkling her nose.

I shrugged. “No reason not to.”

“Except for the dance part,” she said dryly.

Olga’s reaction didn’t seem to dim Edith’s enthusiasm. “It’s going to be fun! Just gotta get my guy to ask me…”

“Ask him,” I suggested.

“He doesn’t even know I exist,” she sighed.

“You have two weeks,” Olga told her.

Edith nodded. “I do. I’ll just bide my time and wait for the right moment.”

We finished eating and headed off to our classes. My stomach was a nervous knot by the end of class. Lunch, English, and then Ultimate Frisbee… I counted down in my head.

~~~*~~~

Ultimate Frisbee, as it turned out, was nothing to be nervous about. In fact, it was a blast! Devon showed me the basics before the game started and then we weren’t even on the same team. I was a little stronger and faster than the average human, but none of that was an advantage in the unfamiliar game. I thought that, at first, I’d have to act more normal. By the end of the game I was using my supernatural skills just to keep up! Some of the humans made the most incredible catches. Devon, in particular, was quite agile.

Tired, but giddy, I accepted Devon’s invitation to dinner after the game ended. We ate a quick bite in the dining hall, much later than I usually had dinner. We were heading toward the doors when they opened and Piter walked in.

“Oh, Lani,” he said, looking surprised.

“Hey.”

And then he walked in. The guy who had been staring at me. His eyes widened. If he didn’t know who I was, he sure looked stunned to see me. He stopped in his tracks, then his shocked expression cooled into a neutral one.

For a moment, none of us spoke.

“Who’s your friend?” Devon finally asked. Did I hear a hint of jealousy in his voice?

“Sorry, this is Piter,” I said. “And this is Devon.”

They shook hands and I was glad to see that Piter didn’t display any tell-tale signs of possessiveness. My brother’s love triangle joke seemed like just that. What a relief.

“This is my roommate, Jory,” Piter said. “This is uh…” He cleared his throat. “Lani.”

Jory looked at me with piercing dark blue eyes. They flicked to Devon, narrowed, and then burned back into me.

Undeterred by Jory’s reaction, or perhaps unaware, Devon stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same,” said Jory flatly. He pushed between us and stalked off into the dining hall.

Piter smiled awkwardly and hurried after him.

“Great guy,” Devon said.

“Piter is,” I said, compelled to defend another shifter. “His roommate… not so much.”

“Is he now?” Devon asked. “How uh… how great?”

He was jealous!

“Well, I mean. A friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, you wanna…” Devon sighed and trailed off.

“Yeah?”

“Gotohomecomingwithme?”

“What?”

Devon laughed nervously. “Homecoming. Do you want to go with me? To the dance?”

~~~~

I hope you liked Chapter Three!

I’m currently snowed in with a record breaking snowstorm, so I’m running some sales! The 2nd book in my More than Magic series is currently free from Smashwords, using the coupon code WK67M (Book 1 is 99 cents) AND the first book in my Curse Collectors series is on sale for 99 cents as well! If you’re enjoying Lion’s Pride and haven’t read my other books, you’ve picked a great week to start!

pizap.com14534834873441 pizap.com14534864072711

Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter Two

If you missed it, head back to Chapter One!

I hope you enjoyed the previous chapter! Thanks for coming back for more!

bookcover1blog

Chapter Two

Amanda, my roommate, kept up a steady stream of chatter as we walked to the dining hall together. It was refreshing to be with something who wasn’t a family member actually talking to me. Most people I met either weren’t sure how to talk to their princess or wanted to woo me into giving them stuff. But Amanda just wanted to be friends. She was genuinely nice to me. I admit, I sort of tuned out as we walked, just basking in how different and how great college was going to be.

“Right, Lani?” she said.

“I… uh… sorry, what?”

Undaunted, Amanda gestured to the forest that our path had brought us closer to. “I said, it’s creepy, right? All dark and spooky.”

Dark was the only part I thought she had right. The only word I would have associated with the forest less than “creepy” was “spooky”. “I guess?”

She shuddered. “I don’t know why the path comes so close to it. I wonder if there’s a better route to the dining hall. That or we’re just going to have to get dinner before the sun goes down from now on!” She pulled out her cell phone and opened her flashlight app, in spite of the sporadic streetlights along the way.

“You’re that freaked out?” I asked.

“Aren’t you? Who knows what’s in there! I heard there are coyotes around here.”

“If we’re attacked by a coyote, I’ll protect you,” I promised, trying not to laugh. Being afraid of an animal was absolutely baffling to me.

Amanda grinned and thanked me, with no idea that I was being completely serious. We shifters liked to keep our existence a secret, but the odd human now and again figured things out. I certainly wasn’t going to let a coyote drag my roommate away when I was more than capable of saving her. I knew it was there, but I semi-consciously felt for the claw under my shirt, like I often did when I thought of shifting. I was pretty sure even the biggest coyote around wouldn’t stand a chance against a lioness.

She picked up her pace and I followed. The path was nearly deserted, which pleased me. I was planning on running wild in the forest when I got the chance. My only concern had been getting out of sight of the students. If all humans were as paranoid about being near the trees at night as Amanda was, it would be easy for me to slip on and off campus.

We made it to the dining hall without any coyote sightings and lined up for dinner. I rarely got to choose what I ate. The cooks stuck to their own menu, amending it now and then to suit my parents’ fancy. The buffet style dining hall was like heaven. In spite of wanting to fit in with the humans, I loaded up my plate with a little bit of everything. Luckily, it looked like everyone else wanted to sample the food too, so I wasn’t the only one with a full spread.

Amanda and I sat down at the end of a long table and were soon joined by a couple more girls. We went around with introductions. Crown Princess Lelania Galonllew of Glenhela was a mouthful that I was happy to shed in favor of Lani Grant. Short and sweet.

Halfway through dinner I got the eerie feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked around, hoping to catch them in the act, but couldn’t see anyone who looked like they might have been watching me. Nobody still staring, no heads rapidly turning away.

Probably guards.

Then again… I cast another glance around. Unless my mother had sent a second pair, there was no way they would already have arrived. Not to mention I didn’t recognize anybody. Surely the guards would at least look familiar. And only students could eat in the dining hall. As worried as she was, I couldn’t imagine that my mother would have gone to the effort of posing a guard as a student just to keep an eye on me.

The feeling kept nagging at me as I ate. I finished quickly. I didn’t like feeling nervous. Maybe my mother’s concern about assassins or kidnappers or whatever was rubbing off on me. As soon as I was finished I grabbed my tray and headed for the nearest trashcan. There was a line of people, scraping off their trays. I joined it, practically bouncing in place, eager to escape.

And then, I saw him.

The tall window next to me was reflecting the dining hall as clearly as a mirror. And there, a few tables away, was a boy. He was staring intently in my direction, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. If he was a guard, my mother had found one I had never seen in my life.

His eyes moved to my reflection and somehow seemed to meet mine. His shoulders stiffened and he jerked his head back down to look at his plate.

A throat cleared behind me. The trashcan was free and I was just standing there like a spaz. I muttered an apology and quickly slid the trash off my tray. I whirled back to face the boy, but his chair was empty. Shoot. I looked around and spotted him; at the far door, hurrying out of the dining hall.

If he was a shifter, he’d be long gone before I could get to him. Especially with the woods nearby. Not that I wanted to call attention to myself by running across the room either.

I swung by the table where Amanda was still eating.

“Something didn’t agree with me,” I lied, patting my stomach. “I’m going to head back to the dorm.”

“Alone?” Amanda asked in alarm.

Our new friend Olga stood. “I’m heading back, I can walk with you.” She turned back to Amanda and her own roommate, Janice. “If you two are cool alone.”

Janice nodded. “We’ll go back together.”

Good grief. Did all humans flock like this? I understood the benefit of safety in numbers. But shifters mainly formed packs to guard against the threat of rival alphas and other packs. Humans didn’t have the same feral desire to fight and dominate that we did.

Like Amanda, Olga seemed uncomfortable by the trees. If Amanda was so worried about coyotes, I wondered how she would feel knowing that soon a lion would be running around in there too.

~~*~~

Sadly, there wasn’t a lion in the woods “soon”. It was nearly three weeks before I felt comfortable enough to venture out. I wanted to make sure my roommate was a sound enough sleeper and to be certain that, no matter what night it was, the path into the woods was clear. I also wanted to make sure the moon was bright, until I got more comfortable in the strange woods.

It seemed like Tuesdays were the best day. Late nights on Thursdays and Fridays were usually full of people coming and going to parties. Forget about weekends. But early morning classes on Wednesday seemed common enough that campus was empty after dinner on Tuesday. I snuck in and out of the room, pretending to take late night showers, to test my roommate. Lucky for me, she was a sound sleeper.

School itself was great. I was still an undeclared major and taking my ‘gen-ed’ classes. My favorite was an art class, where I could just get my hands dirty sculpting. The rest weren’t so different from my lessons at home, except for the group setting. History, though, was fascinating. I knew so little about human history.

The staring incident had also kept me inside longer. Without outright asking, since I didn’t want to worry her, I had managed to figure out that my mother had not sent more guards. Whoever that guy was, he wasn’t a royal guard. Thankfully, I hadn’t seen him again. I was hoping he was just a weirdo. Maybe he thought I was really pretty or had a bad dye-job or something.

I slipped quietly out of bed, already wearing my “running” clothes. My roommate didn’t stir as I tip-toed out of the room and eased the door shut. Home free. I practically skipped down the hall, giddy with the thought of finally shifting.

I jogged down the stairs and nearly crashed into the door that led to the third floor as it swung open in front of me.

“Sorry!” a guy gasped.

You have got to me kidding me. I almost never saw people on the stairs. Why now?!

He stood there, looking at me like he had been caught doing something wrong. I was sure I had the same expression. Relax, I told myself. He would never, ever suspect that I was sneaking out of the dorm to turn into a lion and go gallivanting around in the woods. I wasn’t even sneaking, really. There was no curfew, we weren’t forced to stay in the building all night.

The boy slipped past me and went up a couple of stairs, toward the girls’ floor. He was wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. “Don’t tell the RA,” he said with a wink.

He had just unknowingly given me a great excuse. I caught the door to the boys’ floor before it shut and matched his sly grin. “Only if you won’t.”

We both laughed and he jogged up the stairs. I waited a moment, then hurried on my way. There was nobody else around and I made it outside without another incident. The windows from the rooms looked right down onto the path, so I did a few token stretches, just in case anybody was watching. They’d think I was a bit weird going for a midnight run, but with luck wouldn’t read into it further. Then, I broke into a brisk jog down the path. As soon as an empty building was between me and the dorm, I veered off the path and into the woods.

The nearly full moon made it just bright enough for my weak human eyes to see where I was going. After I felt like I was far enough away from the path, I stopped. For a moment I just took deep breaths, inhaling the crisp air and getting back in touch with nature. It wasn’t necessary for shifting, but I liked to get in the mood. I could hear a couple of owls and a whip-poor-will calling in the distance.

At last, I pulled out my claw and clutched it in my fist. I closed my eyes and focused on the image of a lioness. Shifting wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t exactly painless either. Since it had been so long since my last change, I felt especially stiff. My body ached as my bones and muscles stretched and rearranged. The small patch of fur over my heart itched more and more, until it suddenly rippled and began to spread out over my skin. I felt a weird tugging sensation as any clothing the fur touched was pulled taut and absorbed into it. It was almost painful as my tail sprouted and my spine elongated.

Done. I was shifted. I shook myself off and stretched. Then I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and… crap. I couldn’t roar, not this close to campus. I let out the breath as a growly-sigh and shook again instead. I set off slowly, getting my feel for the forest floor and enjoying the crunch of leaves under my paws.

Being a lion always felt… right. Even though I spent most of my time in human form, there was something indescribably perfect about shifting into my animal body. I didn’t mind being human. In fact, I enjoyed. But there was a sense of contentment, inner peace, that I felt when I was a lion. I knew that my family felt the same way, and assumed that most shifters did.

I picked up my pace into a brisk trot, then a lope. I jumped a fallen tree and broke into a flat-out run. Lions were made for sprinting, not distance running, so I didn’t go far. I eased back into an easy jog and alternated between that and sprints for a while.

As I explored, I wondered if any shifters did spend more time as animals than humans. There was no reason not to. I could, if I wanted to. It just wasn’t convenient. Our home, heck our entire kingdom was built to accommodate our human bodies. It had plenty of room to shift, but our buildings were all human friendly. We had human sized doorways, and chairs, and beds, and everything had to be manipulated with fingers, not paws. Where there any shifters out there who did the opposite?

I was so busy imagining what my room would look like if it were designed for a lioness instead of a girl, that I almost didn’t notice the deer. I spotted her at the last possible second and froze. The doe was drinking out of a small stream. She jerked her head up, wide eyed, and lifted her tail in alarm. I held perfectly still until she bent to drink again. Slowly, slowly, I lowered myself into a crouch.

Should I?

I certainly could. It would be easy. I measured the distance. A quick step-step-step-step-step-step- step-step-step-step-pounce! A single bound would take me over the stream and onto the deer. If she ran, it would be easy to turn my momentum into a second strike and catch her.

But should I? We followed three rules for hunting.

Pick your prey carefully. We weren’t animals. An animal would kill whatever prey was easy. Young, slow, injured. If it was time to hunt, an animal would take what it got. This deer was young, probably her first winter. She looked healthy and strong. Killing her would impact the population. A hungry lion would strike, a shifter wouldn’t.

Only kill what you’ll finish. I wasn’t that hungry. A rabbit would do, if I saw one. Not a whole deer.

Never kill for sport. We weren’t animals, but we weren’t humans either. Humans took trophies. Shifters took only for food. Even if I wanted to break that rule, I’d leave evidence behind. I didn’t want to chance on a human finding it and thinking the kill was suspicious. The last thing I needed was humans swarming the woods looking for some big predator.

The doe was safe tonight.

Even as I made up my mind, she flicked her tail in alarm again. This time, she bounded away into the woods. The bushes on the other side of the stream moved and a huge coyote stalked out.

No, not a coyote. It was a wolf! It saw me and froze. I wasn’t afraid, I could take a wolf. Then again, I had only ever done basic self-defense sparring. I had never actually fought another predator. I hoped a wolf would have the sense to not mess with me.

Unless…

“Good evening,” I said. A real wolf wouldn’t understand me. But a shifter…

The wolf looked surprised, then its tongue lolled out in amusement. “I was wondering if mountain lions range this far.” Its voice was distinctly male.

“I’m not a mountain lion.” I was slightly insulted by being compared to a small cougar.

“I see that now.”

“You go to school here?” I asked.

The wolf nodded. “You?”

I nodded too. Meeting another shifter without your pack was often a delicate process. It was something I was taught to handle, but had never experienced. Everyone I met in Glenhela knew I was the princess. And I often met them while sitting next to my mother’s throne.

The first rule of thumb was that we wouldn’t ask where the other was from. Shifters stuck together. While feuds between packs were rare now, it was better for us to be allies, not enemies. Finding out we were from packs that weren’t on great terms would only lead to problems. There were still a few roaming Alphas and wild packs out there. They’d force you to join if they could. I doubted any were nearby, but this wolf and I could protect each other from them.

Luckily, even if this wolf was an Alpha, we wouldn’t be compelled to fight since I was underage. Then again, he was probably younger than twenty-four as well.

Our next step was to shift. As the stronger shifter, I was supposed to go first. Sort of a trust-submission thing. I slowly began to change. If he attacked or didn’t shift soon, I’d quickly return to my lion form. After he realized what I was doing, he started too.

Once we were both human, we laughed at each other. It was incredibly dark, but I could see just well enough to recognize him. It was the boy from the stairway.

“I thought you were going up to the fourth floor,” I teased.

“I thought you were coming down to mine.” He smiled at me. “I’m Piter.”

“Lani.”

“I’m jumping over,” he warned, gesturing to the creek. I backed up to give him some space.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, as we shook hands.

“Likewise. I thought I was the only shifter at the school.”

“So, you don’t know any others?”

“No. No, just me. I’m the only shifter. Do you know more?”

“Nope. As far as I know, we’re the only ones.”

“Good,” he said. “That’s good that… you know, we met.”

I laughed at his sudden awkwardness. “Yeah.” A cool breeze made me shiver. My light clothes weren’t meant for standing around in the cool night air. It had gotten colder since I had left the dorm. In fact, it was probably getting quite late. “I should get back soon. Before my roommate wakes up.”

“Yeah, that’d be tough worrying about your roommate finding out.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course. I meant it is tough.” Piter rolled his shoulders and started shifting. “We should get back, you’re right.”

He stood patiently while I shifted and soon we were trotting through the woods together. It was obviously a much better environment for a wolf. He set a brisk pace that I found almost challenging to keep up with, as he wove through gaps between trees and bushes, and ducked under things I had to jump.

But it was still nice to be with another shifter. Even though we didn’t talk as we went, the companionship was there. All too soon we reached the path and changed back. We continued in silence, back to the dorm.

“Well, goodnight then, Lani,” he said as we stopped on the stairwell where we had unofficially met.

“Goodnight, Piter. Guess I’ll see you around campus.”

“Yeah. And if not, same time tomorrow night?”

“That’d be great.”

I grinned and jogged up the stairs to my floor, pleased to have made friends with a shifter.

~~~~

Chapter Three

If you’re enjoying Lion’s Pride, please help spread the word to other readers who might like it too! And feel free to comment at the end of chapters to let me know what you think!

Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter One

Welcome to the first chapter of my weekly serial novel! For news and the latest chapters, head over to The Weekly Serial Page.

I hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: This has not been edited and may contain typos. Formatting may be off after being pasted into my blog. The final version which I am compiling into a book may have slight alterations.

bookcover1blog

Lion’s Pride

Chapter One

There.

All done.

I stood back to admire my half of the dorm room. My drawers were full, my bunk was made, and my desk was organized.

“Home sweet home,” I said.

The sun was just starting to set. My first sunset away from home. Leaning my elbows against the windowsill, I watched as the campus started to turn pink. Carrying my things up to the fourth floor had been a pain, but at least it gave me a decent view. My bedroom back home was much higher up. A hill stretched out away from the dorm, sloping down gently into a parking lot. Beyond the parking lot was a forest and beyond that, just barely visible, the mountains. And on the other side of the mountains lay my home; the city I had rarely left.

I lowered my gaze to watch a lone human hiking from his car up to the dorm. The parking lot had been buzzing with cars, students, and parents earlier today, but aside from him, it was just full of parked cars and growing shadows.

Wait no, he wasn’t the only person there.

There were two men, loitering under a lamppost.

I practically shoved my nose against the glass, straining for a good look at them.

They weren’t loitering. Oh no. They were watching.

They were watching me.

I pulled out my cell phone and punched in my mother’s number. No answer. I tried the land-line. Same thing. My little brother was glued to his phone, so I tried him.

“Hey, sis!”

“Where’s mom?”

“Gee, not even a hello for-”

Where is mom?” I growled.

“Hang on.”

Larkin yelled for our mother, without bothering to cover his phone. I pulled mine away from my ear with a wince and replaced it in time to hear a shuffling and a muffled “It’s Lani, she sounds pissed.”

“Honey?” came my mother’s voice.

“You promised!” I snarled.

“I’m sorry?”

“You promised. No guards.”

“I know. I didn’t send any.”

I glared out the window at the parking lot. “Then why are there two royal guards standing in front of my dorm?”

A pause. “You must be mista-”

“One of them is Shea.” I leaned closer to the window, trying to make out the faces. “And I’m pretty sure the other is Robinson.”

My mother sighed. “I didn’t think you’d recognize them…”

“I’ve only been stuck in the palace my entire life. I know every guard. Send them away.”

“They aren’t bothering anyone, Leilania.”

“They’re bothering me.” I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the same argument once again. “I just want a chance to experience a normal life for a little while before I ascend. I’m pretty sure queens don’t take time off from ruling to go to college. I want to see the world and pretend for a few years that I’m nothing special. Just an average girl. No palaces, no crowns, and no royal guards.”

“But you aren’t an average girl,” my mother said. “You’re the crown princess of Glenhela. What if somebody recognizes you?”

I knew, honestly, that she wasn’t wrong. And it made arguing that much harder. It probably wasn’t the best idea for the future queen to leave the safety of the palace, not to mention the barrier, and go running around with humans without any guards. But, it was my only chance. I could count the number of times I’d been allowed to go beyond the barrier around the city on one hand. I needed to get away for a while and college seemed like the perfect chance.

Besides, it wasn’t that dangerous. I could handle any human threats on my own. I hooked a finger on the chain around my neck and pulled it up out of my shirt until the ancient lion claw hanging from it slipped free from the fabric. The chain glinted in the fading sunlight and the claw twisted slowly in the air. I looked up at my reflection in the window.

I don’t recognize myself, Mom.” Not with my hair chemically straightened and dyed so brown it was almost black. I tucked the claw back into my shirt, fingers brushing against the tiny patch of fur over my heart. It was the same golden-blonde my hair should have been and the only outward sign I wasn’t human. “And so what if somebody does? No Glenhelian would want to hurt me.”

It was true. I doubted there were very many shifters outside of our kingdom that even knew what I looked like. And since everyone in Glenhela had sworn submission to my parents, hurting me would never cross their minds.

“You’re an Alpha.”

“I’m an underage Alpha, Mom. Nobody is going to even know.”

“What about someone who opposes the marriage?”

“The secret marriage?”

She snarled into the phone in irritation. “You know that not everyone on the Omega Council agrees with it. And the ones who are opposed are the ones who are most likely to talk about it!”

“I’m not the one getting married, Mom,” I reminded her.  “Plus, they don’t know what I look like either.”

“But what if someone from Caernen –” she started.

“Assassinates the future sister-in-law of their princess?” I cut in. “Because of a wedding in six years they don’t know about yet?”

“What if they want your claw?”

I lifted my claw out again and clutched it in my palm. The ancient tip was still sharp enough I could feel it pressing painfully against my skin. It was one of only nine surviving lion claws from the first King of Glenhela; one of the original members of the first Omega Council. Any shifter with one of these nine claws could control the magical stone that protected our kingdom. Any shifter, that is, who was also an Alpha Lion.

“Again, Mom, any lion who knows what I look like is probably from Glenhela. They’re not going to come after my claw in some crazy attempt to overthrow our family. Plus, you’d know the moment they cross the barrier with it. And any lion from a different kingdom would probably try to take a claw from their royal family. Not ours. And I’m not of age yet. Taking my claw is pointless while someone else is ruling the kingdom.” Before she could say more I added, “We’ve had this argument again and again, Mom. I dyed my hair like we agreed, I went to the school you chose, and I’ll call you every night at nine.”

“Eight?”

Nine.”

She sighed and I knew I had won. Of course, I had already won several times before. I wouldn’t be at the school if I hadn’t. “You know I just worry. With the stones failing…”

“Look at it this way, if the stones fail while I’m away at school, I’ll be the safest member of the family.”

She laughed weakly. “I love you, Leilania. I miss you already.”

“Same here, Mom. I love you too.”

I hung up and slipped the phone into my pocket. As I watched, Shea pulled out his cell phone and answered it. A moment later, he said something to Robinson. They both looked up toward my dorm room. Shea grinned and tilted his head, just slightly, into a bow. I had been exaggerating, I didn’t know every palace guard. But, I did know Shea. He was one of the younger ones who – respectfully – treated me more like a friend than his future queen. I smiled and waved, unsure of whether or not they could actually see me. The pair turned and walked away. I watched until they got into a car and pulled out of the parking lot.

Much better.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother sent replacements. As long as I didn’t know they were there, I supposed it wouldn’t bother me as much.

As much as I hated to admit it, she was probably right. Coming here was reckless and just a bit stupid. I was needlessly putting myself in danger. It would probably have been easier if I just opened up and told my mother the truth about why I wanted to get away so badly. I hadn’t. I wouldn’t. It was still complicated, even to me. I was a mess of emotions and – one reason I did want to go to school – I needed a big change to get my mind off of things and reset myself.

On my twenty-fourth birthday I would gain the ability to control the golden stone that shielded Glenhela from danger. At the same time, the magic that bound the loyalty of the people of Glenhela to my parents would divide between the three of us. Shifters, particularly Alphas, needed a ruling Alpha to keep the peace. When the bond divided, it would weaken and could lead to fighting, rioting, even attempts to overthrow our family. The only solution would be to perform a submission ceremony that would transfer full loyalty and power to me. It had always been a bit daunting, knowing the exact, inevitable day I would ascend the throne. But now…

The magical golden stones that protected every shifter kingdom were failing. Nobody knew where they had come from. Dragons made them, they say. Assuming dragons ever really existed. It didn’t matter. The stones were failing and no one knew how to fix them or make new ones.

Some claimed their stones had visible cracks. Others said the golden glow was fading. Still more ruling families said they had even noticed a weakening in the barrier; weather was getting fouler, humans were straying closer, it was even getting harder to sense all of the shifters within the barrier.

The stones did more than just protect us. They allowed the Alpha who controlled them to dominate other Alphas. Thanks to the stones, we could live in huge, peaceful packs filled with Alphas. Everyone was afraid that if the stones grew too weak, that power would fade. We’d be left with a pack full of rival, feuding Alphas and everything – the kingdom itself – would fall apart.

Would they continue to fail gradually? Or would each stone just suddenly crack one day and lead to a sudden, massive civil war within each kingdom?

The state of our stones was a carefully guarded secret among the royal families, certain trusted court members, and the Omega Council.

That alone made the prospect of becoming queen downright terrifying. How long would I rule before the stones failed? A day? A year? Ten? After my reign was over?

I wasn’t sure how to express it to my mother, she’d probably tell me not to worry, but that was part of why I wanted to go to college. My life had been planned out ahead of my from the moment I was born. Every detail, down to the minute, was laid out before me. Classes all day on reading, writing, history, and politics, and being a good queen, and everything in between. Everything except what to do when the barrier fell. I had learned how to rule a peaceful kingdom, protected by a powerful stone. Not how to cope when the stone failed and I was left with chaos. I thought, maybe, getting away would prepare me somehow. I could learn how to fend for myself and think outside of the box. Even learn what life outside of the barrier was like. And… maybe forget for a few years what waited for me in Glenhela.

Of course, it didn’t end there.

The Omega Council was going crazy trying to figure out how to save the stones. They had come up with desperate, last ditch hope: a wedding. I guess they were trying everything. Different types of shifters rarely married. It happened in smaller packs, usually those outside of the kingdoms. The stones only let us control Alphas of the same species. Our kingdom was nearly all lions. There were scattered Betas of other species, but if any of them gave birth to an Alpha, that child would be forced to leave before they turned twenty-four.

So, a wedding between kingdoms was absolutely unheard of. And that was exactly what the council was hoping. They chose at random from neighboring kingdoms with eligible heirs. The lucky winners were Glenhela and Caernen. Since Caernen’s only royal heir was a girl, they picked my brother for her mate.

A lion and a she-wolf. It made me laugh just thinking about it.

Princess Danica would become Queen of Caernen, with my brother by her side. And then I would be forbidden from having children. When I died the loyalty of my pack would pass to my brother or his children. And, assuming the stones lasted that long, there would be a child who would be able to control one of the stones and both kingdoms. In theory anyway. I guess the Omega Council was hoping that suddenly doubling the size of a pack would give the stones some sort of power boost.

The wedding was the other reason I wanted to go to college. Was I running away? Maybe, sort of. Even though it was six years off, not a day went by when someone didn’t bring it up. Always followed by sympathy for my brother. Poor Larkin. What a burden. How scary. How brave. What a challenge.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree. I did feel bad for my brother. It was a burden and a challenge, not to mention daunting. All those things and more. But, it seemed like people forgot that it would be my burden too. I’d be the queen of a potentially doomed kingdom. Danica and I would do more co-ruling and collaborating than she and Larkin would. We’d have to figure out how to guide our kingdoms toward a union, while my brother was more like a figurehead.

And oh yeah, no children for me. I didn’t want them yet, but the option would have been nice.

Nobody, ever, stopped and told me I was brave or expressed sympathy about my upcoming challenges. Poor Larkin, bravely marrying a she-wolf from Caernen to unite the kingdoms. What about poor Lani having to figure out how to get close enough to another Alpha to decide how to move the kingdoms forward? How scary for Larkin to go live in Caernen. Never how scary for Lani to take control of a kingdom with a failing stone and announce to the masses that she was going to ally with Caernen by marrying off her brother. Let’s teach Larkin everything we know about Caernen, but never even glance at Lani and ask if she wants to know too.

I was scared, forgotten, and nobody seemed to realize it. I supposed I could have said something. But, everything people said to Larkin was true. I had always been the optimistic one. Larkin was always my shadow. He was younger, shyer, and scared too. He needed the attention and the confidence. I felt like I could get by without it. It sucked. It was hard. But, I felt like Larkin needed it more than I did.

Going to school was letting me get away from that. If they weren’t going to be teaching me how to deal with Danica or the failing stones, then my tutors had nothing left to teach. Striking out alone was what I needed now. Both to grow and to get a chance to relax, for once.

When college was over, I was going to be months away from becoming Queen. It always seemed so far away, I always felt so ready. And now… it seemed like the closer the day came, the more unprepared I felt.

The doorknob rattled. My roommate – my human roommate – was unlocking it. I quickly tucked my claw back safely under my shirt and leaned casually against the windowsill.

~~~~

On to Chapter Two!

Carved in Cherry Chapter One

Get ready!

 New Adult Paranormal Romance
Ready for an exclusive sneak peek of Chapter One?
Please remember, this is unedited and the formatting will be affected by blogger.
Chapter One 
“It’s a magical, invisible antique shop,” Jo said. “Obviously.”
Rachel laughed at her sister, before pulling out her cell phone. She brought up the directions and frowned at the screen. “It says that it’s off Gristmill Road. Right?” She held the phone out for Jo to double-check.
“Gristmill Road.” Jo gestured to a nearby street sign. “We’re on it. And we’ve walked up and down it a dozen times.”
“Well, Aunt Lydia’s antique shop has to be somewhere.” Rachel shoved the phone back in her pocket and started walking.
Jo fell back into step with her. “What is ‘grist’ anyway?”
“Just an old-timey word for grain. Stuff like wheat, rye, bar-“
“Okay, okay! History nerd.”
“Shouldn’t you know that, writing geek?” As she spoke, Rachel turned and shot a silly look at her sister. The action loosened her scarf, just as a cold gust of wind blew against her back. Several drops of icy water dripped down her back. She gasped in surprise and turned to find the source.
“You okay, Rach?”
Rachel reached back and brushed at the nape of her neck. “Yeah.” She looked up and spotted a rusty, iron sign, swinging from the side of the building. A few drops of water slid from the icicles clinging to the sign.
Antiques
“Hey! I think this is it!” Rachel stepped back for a better look at the old building. The first story was made out of old, worn brick and the second was wood. Rachel tried to picture what it must have looked like when it was new. When had that been; two-hundred? Three hundred years ago? Most of Old Town had been built in the early eighteenth century. Rachel could see a pair of paned windows. She squinted up at them, wondering if the glass was handmade.
Jo’s voice broke into her thoughts, “Where’s the door?”
That was a good question. Rachel looked back and forth along the building. Nothing but brick.
“Well, it must be somewhere.”
They walked along the cobblestone sidewalk toward the edge of the building. There was a space – hardly large enough to call an alley – between the antique shop and the building next door. Rachel and Jo didn’t have enough room to walk side by side. Halfway down the alley was a door, covered in peeling green paint. A little plaque by the door read: Lydia’s Curiosities.
“Guess this is it,” Rachel said.
The windows were so dusty Rachel could hardly see the word Closed on the sign behind them. She tried the knob anyway and wasn’t surprised when it was locked. She pulled off a mitten with her teeth and started rummaging in her purse for the key. ”Where is that key…”
Buscar la clave,” Jo said. “Or wait, is it llave?” She had recently taken an interest in her Mexican heritage and started learning Spanish.
“Beats me. It’s yournative language. Which reminds me, has it started coming back yet?”
Jo had been fluent, or at least as fluent as a two-year-old could be, when she was adopted. She picked up English rapidly and hadn’t spoken a word of Spanish since. She had been hoping her past fluency would help her in class, but so far she was on the same level as the other students.
“Not yet. Oh my God, did I tell you my professor said my accent is terrible?”
“Tell her to kiss your culo. Ah-ha!” Rachel triumphantly fished the key out of her purse and worked it into the lock.
Jo pulled out her phone. “I should text Angie and let her know how to find the place.” She looked back out toward the street. “We’re across from the Haber…”
“Haberdasher. And you’re supposed to be an English Major.”
“I know the word, I was texting,” Jo said. “And it’s a haberdashery. A haberdasher is the person who…haber…dashes.”
The door clicked open, just as she finished texting, and the two peered into the dimly lit shop.
“Do you remember Aunt Lydia at all?” Jo asked, as they nervously walked in. She vaguely remembered their recently deceased aunt visiting when she was younger. Rachel, three years her senior, probably had better memories.
“Sort of.” Rachel remembered a quiet, older woman. A little strange, maybe even whimsical. Like the sort of woman who had twenty cats and knit tea cozies. She couldn’t remember many details about Lydia herself. Unmarried, no children, as far as she knew. In fact, Rachel hadn’t even known about the antique shop, until Lydia’s lawyer arrived to tell her and her sisters, that they were the proud new owners.
Rachel moved further into the shop and looked around eagerly. She was almost disappointed as she took in just how small it was. The building had looked so much bigger from outside; the shop must have shared the space with other stores.  A solitary, dirty, bare light bulb hung from the ceiling, casting just enough light for Rachel to see around the entire room. There were bookcases, lined up to form aisles, and shelves along the walls. There were a couple of large cabinets and a handful of bigger pieces of furniture. Everything else was neatly stacked up on the shelves. Rachel had been hoping for more.
“Having a histor-gasm?” Jo quipped from behind her.
Rachel snorted and punched her sister. “There could be some cool stuff here,” she said, hoping she was right. “And you’re the fiction writer. Something here could inspire the Next Great American Novel.”
They both giggled. Jo pulled the door closed behind her. Without the light from the street, the shop seemed even darker. The two slowly walked through the store. A shelf full of old books caught Jo’s eye and she drifted over toward it as she went. Rachel started to follow her, but spotted an old cash register sitting on the counter. She wondered whether or not their aunt had been using it to ring up customers and decided to investigate it. The counter was high enough that Rachel had to stand up on her toes to lean over to look behind it. It looked like the cash register was still in use. There was also a yellowed ledger. Rachel picked it up and skimmed over the most recent transactions.
Jo was almost to the bookshelf when she spotted a door labeled Private. She took one last glance at the books and headed over. In spite of the fact she technically owned the shop, she felt just a little rebellious opening the door. She paused, confused, when she realized there was no knob. Instead, there was just a simple keyhole, framed by a slightly decorative piece of metal, carved into the door.
“Hey, Rach,” she called. “You see any keys behind that counter?” Jo poked at the keyhole. “Any hugekeys,” she added. Based on the hole, the key that went to the door must have been enormous. She gave the door a push, just in case it was unlocked, but it didn’t budge. She poked her finger into the keyhole and pulled, just in case, before giving up and turning her attention to one of the nearby shelves. It was full of wicker baskets, which were almost overflowing with odds and ends. There was a basket of coins, one filled with little glass animals, and one of keys. Jo pulled off her mittens and stuffed them into her coat pocket, before leaning over the basket. She stirred the keys around with one hand. “Never mind, I just found an overabundance of them,” she muttered.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rachel had joined her and was examining the door.
“I already tried,” Jo said, as Rachel started to push on the door. “It’s loc-“
The door easily swung partway open, revealing a dark room beyond. Rachel raised an amused eyebrow at Jo.
“You mean unlocked?” she snickered.
“Well, I loosened it for you.”
 The door was old and worn. Rachel ran a hand over the smooth wood and traced around one of the large iron hinges.
“I think these are handmade,” she murmured. The door was very, very old. Probably as old as the building. Rachel took a step back and frowned at it. It looked more like a door to the outside, than an interior door. She leaned back and looked at the wall, wondering if the shop had been added on at some point.
“Are you going to go in or keep fondling the door?” Jo asked.
For an answer, Rachel pushed the door further open and led the way in. Jo followed.
“Jeez. I think we found the Room of Requirement.”
“No kidding,” Rachel chuckled.
The room dwarfed the first room and it was absolutely packed full of antiques. Everything was covered by a thick layer of dust. There was so much stuff crammed into the room that neither girl could see the walls. The only space to walk was a narrow aisle between stacks of junk. Even smaller paths broke off and wove through the antiques and out of sight.
Rachel’s laugh turned into a sneeze. “It looks like she died years ago, not days. I don’t think anyone has been here in ages.”
“Not entirely true.”
Jo pointed to the floor. A path, mostly clear of dust, wound away from the door and deeper into the room. Several sets of footprints split off from it and led in different directions. Someone walked around in here, but not often. She spotted a bunch of paw prints too; probably from a cat or small dog.
“Storage?” she asked.
“Must be.”
Rachel looked around for a light switch. The dim light from the main room wasn’t nearly enough. Nowshe was excited. Even though she and her sisters were planning to just sort everything and clean the shop, Rachel was hoping she’d find something cool to keep. The massive storage room had exponentially increased her chances of finding something neat.
Something moved. Rachel gasped and moved closer to her sister. She squinted into the darkness, heart pounding.
“When do you think Angie will-”
“Shh!” Rachel clamped a hand over Jo’s mouth. “Someone’s here!”
“What?”
“Over there!” Rachel pointed and pulled her sister closer to the door.
Jo freed her arm from Rachel’s grasp. “Are you kidding? You better not be trying to scare me.”
“I’m serious!” Rachel’s eyes frantically scanned the area where she had seen movement. “Hello? Is somebody there?” she called.
“Should we call the police?”
A low, menacing voice filled the air, “What are you doing here?”
The girls stared in horror as a figure stepped out from behind a bookshelf. He was tall and hooded, and his face was hidden by shadows. He took a step toward them and raised a sword.
“How did you find this place?” he demanded. “Who sent you?”

Snow Bound Teaser Chapter

A moment of your time…
On Friday August 10, Semester Aboard was free for a day on Kindle. I watched it climb the Amazon free list and…honestly I’m not sure what numbers I expected. Maybe 100 copies or something. I was stunned, absolutely stunned, when my publisher texted me to let me know it had passed 500. Then, less than 3 hours later, she sent me other message to say it was over 800. Eight. Hundred. I have no shame in saying that I did a rather embarrassing happy dance. Then, the magnitude of that number hit me. 800 is more than the number of Facebook fans I have. It’s more than the number of total books I’ve sold in the year since Semester Aboard was published. Total, from any venue. It’s 8 times the number of people who have added it on Goodreads. Mind boggling. Exciting. Rather overwhelming.

So, I decided, why the heck not, and posted a challenge. If the number of free downloads hits 1000, I’ll post the first chapter from the sequel. I thought maybe I’d get up to 900, it was getting close to the end of the day.

1173. I don’t even think I can do the math for that one (that’s why I’m an author after all). Suffice to say, it’s a good 1000 more than I expected to get that day. 1000 more than what I have on Goodreads. Let me just say this to wrap up – thank you. Thank you! That’s to everyone who downloaded it, everyone who had it before, and everyone who spread the word about it. You’re why I write. And now, as promised…

More than Magic: Snow Bound

Chapter 1

Warning – Spoilers
If you haven’t read Semester Aboard, this chapter will be jam-packed with spoilers. If you’re looking for something to read, I suggest you go here instead! 
It was almost beautiful. The pines lining the sides of the road were covered in snow, and when the bus slowed down I could almost see each needle encased in ice. In fact, it had been beautiful … four hours ago. It had only taken two to start getting sick of the scenery. The only thing that had changed about the landscape, since I’d boarded the bus from the airport, was the color of the snow. The sun was just starting to set; now everything was green and sunset-pink, instead of green and white. I shifted my weight and tried to stretch my legs.
“Seventeen minutes to Winter Valley,” Bill called.
Bill was the bus driver. He was turning sixty-one in March and had been driving the bus between the airport and Winter Valley Ski Resort for almost forty years. He also, I had learned, was a very talkative, overly-friendly man. There were four other people on the bus with me and none of us had gotten a word in over Bill’s life story.
“How’s your panther, Sailor?” Bill asked with a laugh. He also thought he had a great sense of humor and had given everyone on the bus a nickname. Mine, thanks to the embroidered ship on the sweatshirt I was wearing, was Sailor.
I looked into the cat carrier next to me. All I could see was a ball of black fur. To be fair, Rak was on the larger side for a cat.
“He’s fine! Thanks, Bill.”
The fur moved and I caught sight of a bright yellow eye. “Actually, his tail is cramping and he’s hungry,” Rak said.
Nobody else on the bus could hear him, so he spoke at a normal volume. I, on the other hand, had to cover my mouth to hide my reply. “It was the biggest one I found that I could carry-on the plane.”
Rak sighed and shifted his weight again. “I could have stayed home.”
“With Emily?”
He hissed in disdain. My little half-sister was fond of stuffing him into dresses.
“Besides, we’ve only been bonded since August. If I’m going to live on campus next semester I want to spend as much time with you as possible,” I added.
He purred in agreement and I leaned back against the window. If six months ago someone had told me where my life was heading I would have thought they were crazy. I had spent the summer studying abroad on a cruise ship. I had taken classes and visited different countries all along the west coast of Latin America. In fact, the sweatshirt that had earned me Bill’s nickname was a souvenir from the trip. But the cruise hadn’t exactly been what I had expected. By sheer dumb luck I had been in the right place at the right time and had met a few students who weren’t exactly human. They were magical beings and, much to my surprise, I was one too. Specifically: a witch. My parents were non-magics and I had gone the first twenty-one years of my life without even knowing that magic existed. Once they realized what I was, I became good friends with all five of them. Then, just when I thought my summer couldn’t get any more incredible, I arrived home to find my familiar waiting for me.
And I had never been happier to get home. Through chance or bad luck, there were other magics on the ship with us; vampires to be exact. My new friends and I almost hadn’t survived the trip. It was going to be nice to finally just relax with them.
“You should probably call Thomas to let him know we’re almost there,” Rak said.
I fumbled around in my purse for my phone, spotting my wand as I did. There were a number of different ways to carry a wand around and I had yet to find one I really liked. Someday I’d be able to reliably shrink it, but for now, I had to rely on less magical means. So far, my purse was the easiest place to keep it handy. Rak insisted that it wouldn’t break easily, so I wasn’t worried about it banging around in my purse. I pushed it aside and pulled out my phone.
“No service,” I groaned.
“Maybe that’s why Thomas didn’t answer before.”
I sighed and put my phone back in my purse. I had called Thomas as soon my plane landed, but had had to leave a voice mail. If he didn’t get service up here either, there was a good chance I’d end up stranded at the bus stop. Then again, there were worse situations to be in than stuck at a bus stop near a ski lodge. I stretched again and settled back to watch the darkening landscape fly by. Now that I was minutes away—I hoped—from seeing my friends again, I could feel the excitement building. We had all kept in touch with email, but this would be the first time I had seen any of them since we had gotten off of the ship back in August. I couldn’t wait to spend the next two weeks with them.
It wasn’t just the prospect of seeing them again that had me excited, they were the only other magics I had ever really spent time with. Now that I knew what some species of magics looked like, I had started spotting them now and again. Unfortunately I had yet to see one in a situation where I could talk with them. There was also the fact that I lived with my stepmother and Emily. They were both non-magics, which meant it was illegal to tell them anything about my new life. That itself was frustrating, even though I had been prepared for it. What I hadn’t expected was just how much trouble it would be. Non-magics couldn’t hear Rak’s voice, so he was free to talk to me whenever he wanted, but I couldn’t always reply. We’d figured out a simple system of gestures that I could use when nobody was looking, but it was still frustrating to not be able to talk to him whenever Rachel or Emily were around. Fortunately, over the past few weeks our bond had strengthened to the point where we could sense each other’s emotions from time to time. It was still faint, but it had started to make our stealth conversations easier. Poor Rak had it harder than I did. He had to periodically use the litter box to keep Rachel from getting suspicious; despite the fact that she usually asked me to clean it. Even though he complained about having to use it, he grudgingly admitted that it was nice to have a litter box around if someone left the toilet lid down. We were both looking forward to spending some time alone with other magics, which was something we’d never gotten to do together.
Even as my excitement grew, there was still one issue I couldn’t shake … Shannon, my best friend and cousin. We had grown up together and hadn’t ever really been apart until college. Even then, we had spent all of our vacations, and most of our weekends, visiting each other. This summer had been the first time we had split up. We had calculated that it was the longest single stretch of time that we had been apart since we were little kids. We kept telling ourselves that we’d have winter break … yet here I was. Luckily, she’d gotten an invitation to go skiing in Colorado with some college friends. As much as I wanted to see my magic friends again, if Shannon hadn’t been able to make plans I probably wouldn’t have left her. I certainly wouldn’t have gone for two weeks. But I still felt bad that we weren’t spending winter break together and I knew that she did, too. I also still felt guilty that I had had to lie to her about most of my summer adventures or at least downplay them. Even though I was hoping to experience some new magical things on this trip, I’d have to lie about those to her, too.
That, I supposed, was something I’d just have to get used to as a magic. I tried to turn my thoughts back to how exciting it would be to see everybody again. It worked, but I started to feel a nervous knot forming in my stomach as the minutes ticked by. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Thomas, I was also worried about it. I had developed a massive crush on him over the summer, and halfway through the trip he had kissed me. Then he had never mentioned it again. Just to make things more complicated, the kiss had happened while there was a very good chance that a vampire was about to kill us both. Given the situation, the reasons behind the kiss were that much harder to analyze. As if that wasn’t enough, everyone else insisted that Thomas did like me; he just moved slow. It didn’t make me feel any better.
Suddenly, the trees parted and we were out of the seemingly endless forest. The bus pulled into a large parking lot covered in road salt. We drove past a row of small shops and stopped by a little glass shelter.
“Well, we’re here,” Bill announced. He waited patiently as everyone got off of the bus and then started pointing out the sights. “Down the street there is a grocery store, a great shop that will fulfill all of your winter sport’s needs. Next is a pizza place; Don is a good friend of mine, the food is great. Finally the rental agency for the cabins is over there. The lodge is up those stairs there; do be careful, there’s usually ice. Gear rental is on the other side with the slopes. And the hotel is that large building there!”
When the bus was unloaded, three of the people I had been with went straight for the hotel and the fourth started for the shops. Bill helped a new group load their suitcases onto the bus and soon I found myself standing by the shelter. I had my suitcase on one side, Rak’s carrier on the other, and my skis resting against my shoulder. I checked my phone again, but still had no bars. I hoped someone would come along soon. It was a lot colder than it had been in Maryland and the fact that it was rapidly getting dark wasn’t helping.
“You know where you’re off to, Sailor?” Bill asked.
“I’m being picked up.”
“I’d be happy to wait with you … but I do have to get back to the airport on time.” He glanced at the bus and the people settling down inside.
“Go on ahead, I’ll be fine. Thank you for driving me.”
Bill beamed. “Not a problem! I’ll be back to take you down again. Two weeks, right?” I nodded. “See you then, Sailor!” He bent down and waggled his fingers at Rak’s carrier. “Bye, Panther!”
“Bye, Bill!”
Rak muttered a goodbye as well and then it was just us. I made sure that there weren’t any non-magics close enough to see, and then slipped my wand out of my purse.
Mar,” I whispered, casting a spell to give me night vision and warm me up. My night vision would have been stronger and I would have been warmer if I had cast them separately, but doing two-in-one was a little more advanced. I considered it good practice. I glanced around again to make sure nobody was watching, and then aimed my wand down at Rak’s carrier. “Ahn.”
The door clicked open and Rak pushed his head out. He gingerly set one paw on the pavement and I felt an odd, distant sensation of cold and damp on my left palm. He leaned out far enough to turn and see the top of his carrier, and then avoided touching any more snow with a trick he referred to as: jumping. Every species of familiar had their own unique ability. In fact, one of the first magical things I had ever seen was a raven using a power that lets them transform into any other type of bird. Cats were able to teleport themselves anywhere that they could see, provided there was nothing between them and their destination; although Rak had wrinkled his nose in disdain when I had used the term teleport.
The distance between where he was and the top of the carrier was so short that I didn’t even see him vanish. The only sign of his jump was the wisps of black smoke hanging around the carrier. He stretched gratefully and yawned, then sat down to clean the paw that had touched the ground.
“Jen!”
I turned just in time to see a blur of motion. Suddenly, someone slammed into me and lifted me completely off the ground in a bone-crushing hug.
“Jen, Jen, Jen, Jen, Jen! I missed you! It’s so grand to see you!” I recognized the gravelly voice and the hint of an Irish accent instantly. Nevertheless, I would have known who he was without a single word. The sheer size of him would have been a dead giveaway, even if he hadn’t punctuated how glad he was to see me by licking me from chin to temple.
“I missed you too, TS,” I said, trying to dodge his tongue. That was one of his habits I didn’t think I’d ever get used to.
He gave me another squeeze and then set me down, grinning. It was the same old, familiar grin: wide, goofy, and almost adorable, with his tongue partially lolling out. It was good to see him. Then I noticed that even though his hair was just as shaggy as usual, it was a shockingly light gray.
“What did you do to your hair?”
He looked confused for a moment, then laughed and scratched at it. “Nothing, it’s my winter coat.” A few strands of his original brown fluttered down and he scratched more vigorously. “Still shedding, it really bloody itches.” As he spoke I realized that he had also shaved off his goatee, although I could see gray stubble that looked a couple of days old.
“It looks good,” I offered, not sure if laughing would offend him.
“Thanks.”
It was almost surreal to be standing next to TS. I had been looking forward to seeing everyone again since the summer, but now that I was here I couldn’t quite believe it was finally happening. The butterflies that had formed in my stomach on the bus were still eagerly fluttering and I was sure that I was grinning like an idiot. I hesitated before introducing Rak. TS was less than fond of cats. I hoped it wouldn’t be too awkward.
I took a deep breath. “TS, this is Rak.”
TS hardly even glanced down at him. “Hi.”
Rak curled his tail around his ankles and replied with an equally unenthusiastic, “Hello.”
I had just enough time to think that this hadn’t gone as badly as I had been expecting when TS said, “You know, you could trade him in for a jackal.”
Never mind. But I was ready with what I hoped was the one response that would get TS to accept, or at least tolerate, having a cat around. Werewolves were among the few kinds of magics who could form magical bonds the way witches and familiars could. And werewolves took their bonds very seriously.
“Rak and I are bonded,” I said firmly.
TS winced. “Right. Sorry, I was just kidding,” he muttered. Then, to my surprise, he bent down and held a hand out to Rak. “Nice to meet you.”
I felt a faint sense of surprise from Rak as he lifted a paw and shook TS’ hand. “You too.” It was a very brief handshake. When it was over TS wiped his hand on his pants and Rak looked like he was considering cleaning his paw.
“Feels weird having a cat in my pack.” TS looked at his hand and wrinkled his nose.
TS considered me a good enough friend that he had bonded to me, which made me part of his pack. It was a weak bond and I was unable to sense it at all, but werewolves felt a magically enhanced sense of loyalty and affection to packmates. Since he had bonded to me, TS would always faintly sense how I was and he’d know if anything ever happened to me. I had wondered if that bond would automatically extend to my familiar; it seemed like it did. I couldn’t help but feel a little bad for TS. It would be weird to hate cats, but be compelled to care about one.
I reached out and scratched TS’ back to comfort him. “You’ll get used to it.”
He leaned into my hand and sighed. “I sort of hope not.”
Given that he was bonded to me, I wasn’t at all surprised that TS had come to pick me up. But I hadn’t expected him to be alone. For one thing, Thomas had said that he’d meet me at the bus stop. For another, he was part of TS’ pack. Thomas wasn’t just any packmate, TS had formed a much rarer bond with him; one as strong as mine would be with Rak. It was a little odd to find TS without Thomas around.
“Where is Thomas?” I couldn’t resist asking. Eager as I was to see him again, I was also concerned about his health. Thomas had been sick, extremely sick, during the summer. Even though he had assured me that he was better now, I wanted to see it for myself. That, and a silly voice in the back of my mind wondered if he was avoiding me because of the kiss. I mentally rolled my eyes at my reaction. I still couldn’t quite believe I had developed such a massive, ridiculous crush on him.
“Stuck doing MES business. We only get service at the lodge and he checked his voice mail to see if you called earlier. Some useless bloke from the office called at the exact right moment and Tom’s been on the phone with him for an hour.”
“Oh. Is it serious?”
They all worked for the Magical Enforcement and Security Agency. When they first told me about MES I thought of it as a magical FBI or something like that. I wasn’t too far off, but I had since learned that MES did quite a bit more than that. There were countless different jobs, some fairly mundane sounding, within the agency. Just about any magic, regardless of what they studied, seemed to be able to find work with them. And, since MES kept an eye on pretty much everything magics did, it was impossible to not find yourself involved with them.
An agent had actually shown up at my house to give a little “welcome to the magical world” spiel. It had been kind of nice. He’d walked me through registering as a new magic—something I was rather old to be doing—and applying for my own magical ID. He had also referred me to some local businesses that catered to magics and given me a crash course in magical laws. Thomas had seemed adorably jealous when I told him about it. He said if he had known he would have come down to visit me and done it all himself.
But it wasn’t all paperwork and red tape, even though most of the emails they sent me mentioned something tedious they’d done at work. Some aspects of MES were much darker. Everyone except Mariana, who was just an intern, was certified to deal with “dangerous” magics and had arresting authority. As I had learned firsthand, they were even expected to use deadly force if necessary. I wondered if Thomas would have to cut the vacation short if something really serious was going on.
Before I could worry too much, TS shook his head. “Nah, it’s nothing. He’s a wisp. And wisps are all mental. It’s a wonder they don’t sack him.”
Rak knew that I had no idea what a wisp was. “Air elemental.”
A few months was hardly enough time to learn everything there was to know about magics. Luckily Rak had assured me that you never really learned everything. I felt a little embarrassed that it had hardly been five minutes and I’d already learned something new. Then again, I supposed that was part of what I had been looking forward to. There were probably countless things I had just never wondered about because I couldn’t spend enough time around other magics. I’d probably learn more in the two weeks with my friends than I could in a month with just Rak. He had, regretfully, explained that familiars weren’t some sort of all-knowing being designed to teach witches and wizards all about magic. He knew a lot about our world because he had grown up in it, but he wasn’t prepared to sit me down and teach me everything he knew.
“What’s the difference between a sylph and a wisp?” I really was curious, but I also wanted to remind TS that I wasn’t quite as clueless as I had been over the summer.
“Erm … sylphs are normal and wisps are mad?” TS offered. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t exactly ready with Magic World 101 either.
I decided to just wait and ask an elemental instead. “So, do we wait for Thomas?”
TS cocked his head thoughtfully. I knew he was trying to sense Thomas and wondered if I got the same expression on my face when I tried to sense Rak. It was going to be interesting being around them now that I had a bond of my own.
“Still talking,” TS announced. “And bored as hell. That agent talks as much as Bill.”
“The bus driver?” I giggled.
“Right. He’s a nutter, that one.”
“He’s a lonely, old man.”
TS snorted. “He’s only a few years older than me. And he talks just as much as he did forty years ago when he was a young nutter.”
That was the one thing about magics I still had trouble with. I knew we were immortal—it certainly wasn’t something that I could forget—but it was still something that I couldn’t quite keep my head wrapped around. Even though I knew that I was thirty years younger than TS, it was hard to see a guy who looked my age and keep his real age in mind.
“At any rate, I don’t think Tom’ll be done any time soon, so we might as well head to the cabin. He’ll catch up.”
“The cabin?”
“I thought we were staying in the lodge,” said Rak.
“So did I!”
TS laughed. “What, with a bunch of non-magics? We’ve got a little cabin all to ourselves.” He picked up my suitcase and started walking. “Come on.”
Rak hopped off of his carrier and started gingerly trotting on the snow after him. I grabbed my skis and the cat carrier, slowly trailing behind them. TS led us down the road, but abruptly turned and headed into the trees. The sun was fully down and I was glad I had already cast my night vision spell. Even so, it was still a little dark and creepy in the woods. The snow was deeper than it had been on the road. Rak paused and turned in my direction. He bent to leap and I braced myself as he jumpedup onto my shoulder to escape the snow.
“Where is the cabin?” I asked.
“About three miles this way.”
“Three miles?” I stopped and looked down at my shoes. They were warm for now, but I wasn’t sure if they would hold up to three miles of hiking, especially in snow. My snow boots were somewhere at the bottom of the bag TS had. I also hadn’t planned on lugging my skis that far and they were already digging into my shoulder.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be walking.”
TS kept going and I hurried to catch up. We only hiked for another minute or two when TS stopped next to a sled, dropping my bag into it. He gestured for me to add my skis and I gratefully slung them down into the plastic sled. TS lashed them in place with a rope, and then picked up another one tied to the front of the sled and started untangling it. There was a lot more to it than a simple rope for pulling kids up a hill. He set it back down, stretched, and changed into a wolf.
“Whoa,” I breathed. He hadn’t been joking about his winter coat. I’d seen him turn into a wolf a hundred times, but he’d always had his brown summer coat. Just like his hair, his fur was now a mix of silvers and whites. He shook and sent out a shower of brown strands. TS was much bigger than a non-magic wolf, but his thick winter coat made him look even larger than I remembered.
TS stuck his nose under a loop of the sled’s rope and wiggled into it. I realized that it was a harness. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder, tongue lolling out in a big doggy grin.
“Want a ride?”
I smiled back. “Sure.”
Rak jumped off of my shoulder and onto my bag. I walked over to TS and he crouched down. I had ridden him before, but it was still a little odd to be riding a werewolf. His coat was definitely a lot thicker than it had been. It was kind of like sitting on a fluffy horse.
“Okay, I’m ready.”
“The cat can ride too if he likes,” TS muttered.
“Oh. Thanks.” Rak sounded just as resigned about it as TS. I couldn’t see him, but somehow I knew he was about to jump and was ready for it when he landed on my shoulder. He hopped down in front of me and settled in on TS’ back.
Then TS started walking. A moment later he broke into a brisk trot. I leaned forward a little to escape the wind and wished that I had worn my hat.
A light off to the side caught my attention and I squinted into the trees, trying to figure out what it was. I realized after a moment that the light was from a cabin.
“Hey,” I called to TS. “Aren’t you worried someone will see you?” We were awfully close to the cabin and a giant wolf being ridden by a person wasn’t something we wanted non-magics to see.
“Not really. They put out a warning if there are non-magics renting the cabins and there aren’t any right now,” TS explained.
“So, is this a magic resort?” I asked in surprise.
“Sort of. It’s run by magics. There are a ton of non-magics around, but this place is fairly magic friendly. To be honest, the slopes aren’t the best, but there are enough perks for us here that it’s worth it.”
“What sort of perks?”
TS stopped by a little wooden sign with numbers and arrows on it, then turned sharply and started trotting again. I realized that we were on a small path. The lights from a different cabin glowed in the distance. I spotted another little sign and footprints leading down a path that led toward the cabin.
“Well, the private cabins for one,” TS said. “They also try to give you cabins based on what sort of magic you are. And I’m allowed to hunt if I want. Got a moose a few years back. Now that was brilliant.”
“Have you really known Bill for forty years?”
“Unfortunately.”
“So, you come a lot then?”
“All the time. Tom and I have been coming here since I was a puppy.” He turned down a fork in the path. “Just another mile or so. Mind if I run?”
I slipped a hand under the rope harness and tightened my grip on his fur. “Go for it.”
TS broke into a much smoother run than I had expected. Rak burrowed back against my stomach and I wrapped an arm around him, hoping one hand was enough to hold on. The wind whipped by and stung my cheeks. It was actually sort of exhilarating.
“If you can do this any time you want, is skiing even fun?” I asked.
“Anything fast is fun!” TS called over his shoulder.
Even though Rak growled and huddled closer to me, I could faintly sense that he was also enjoying the run. A minute, at the most, had gone by when TS slowed back down to an easy lope. I was about to ask what was wrong when we turned off of the path and down a smaller one. Had we gone a mile that fast?
“This is us,” he announced.
He went a few feet down the path, and then abruptly stopped right next to a tree. He leaned so far to one side that I had to clamp my legs around him to keep myself from sliding off.
“What are you—” Then I heard a very distinct sound. “Oh my God, TS!” I cried.
TS lowered his head and flattened his ears in embarrassment. “Sorry. There’s another werewolf in the next cabin over. I can’t help it.”
“Dogs,” Rak hissed in disgust.
“Don’t give me that,” TS said. “Cats mark their territory too.”
“We’re decent enough to do it in private.”
TS didn’t answer. Instead, he moved back onto the path and started trotting again. A moment later the trees parted and the cabin came into view. I smiled; it looked like something out of a movie.
The cabin—an actual log cabin—sat in the middle of a snow covered clearing. A thick plume of smoke billowed out of the chimney and too-bright lights from the windows cast a warm glow on the frosted ground. TS stopped near the door and I eagerly slid off of his back.
“Here we are then,” he stated, opening the door.
Rak jumped from my arms and right into the cabin, TS and I following him in. The interior of the cabin was really cute and cozy looking. From the outside it had looked like a two-story cabin, but inside there was a huge, vaulted ceiling. The logs and rafters were all bare and rustic looking. A massive stone fireplace with a chimney went all the way up one wall. A stack of firewood, taller than me, was piled up next to it with a large fire burning away inside. A big, flat-screen TV mounted on the fireplace sort of took away from the ambiance, but it looked like it would be a great place to curl up and watch a movie. There were two big, comfy looking couches with thick blankets draped over them, and a large dining table with matching chairs made out of branches. There was a door in the back wall, directly across from the front door, and another door next to the fireplace. The only sound was the crackling from the fire. I had expected to see the rest of my friends, but it looked like the cabin was empty.

 

Chapter Four

Just about all of the places that provide sample downloads of Semester Aboard allow people to read the first 10% free.  That takes you just a couple of pages into Chapter Four.  I figured, what’s the point of having chapters available on my blog if my readers don’t get anything extra?  So, here it is, for the first time: all of Chapter Four!

If you haven’t read the previous chapters, I suggest you do!

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three

Chapter Four

     I followed Dani’s gaze across the dock but didn’t see anybody coming toward us.
     “Jon!” he yelled.  “Hey, Jon!”
      A man turned and looked at us.  That was Jon?  Aside from the fact he was wearing a business suit he didn’t look very boss-like.  As he walked over to us I noticed that he didn’t even look that much older than us.  He certainly didn’t strike me as old enough to run some company.  Then again, he had, in Thomas’ words, taken care of him.  Thomas had acted like he viewed Jon as a father figure more than an older brother, so he couldn’t be that close to us in age.  He must have just been aging well.  He had neatly combed black hair and dark eyes.
     “Danio,” he said as he approached us.  Even his boss called him that?  He stopped in front of us and looked at me.  “You must be Jennifer.”
     Thomas joined us.  “How was your trip?”
     Jon turned to Thomas.  “It was pleasant, we…” he trailed off and his eyes widened.  “Oh my god, Thomas.  It’s only been two weeks…” He started rapidly talking in a different language.
     Thomas looked embarrassed and I was surprised when he replied in the same language.  It looked like they started arguing.  Thomas was apparently fairly fluent; he spoke quickly and never seemed to fumble for words.  Jon was obviously worried about something and from their body language it looked like Thomas was defending himself.  I looked over at Dani.  He looked sort of angry.  His jaw was clenched and dark blues crashed in his eyes.  I wondered if he understood them.
     “We’re being rude,” Thomas said suddenly in English.  He was practically glaring at Jon and I knew their argument hadn’t been resolved.
     Jon looked annoyed that Thomas had ended the conversation, but nodded.  “My apologies,” he said to me, holding out his hand.  “I am Jon Kiyosugi.”
     “Jennifer Maddox,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”  I took his hand and shook it.  He bowed a bit as we shook hands.
     “Shall we?” he asked, gesturing to the restaurant.
     They sat us outside by the dock, overlooking the water.  Thomas and Jon sat on one side and Dani sat next to me.
     “What language was that?” I asked Thomas as we sat down.
     “Japanese.”  He picked up a menu and opened it.
     That was that.  The three of them started reading the menus and didn’t seem in any hurry to explain things.  This was starting to get really annoying.
     Then, Dani leaned forward and spoke quietly in another language.  It sounded like he was speaking Japanese too!  Thomas and Jon both looked shocked by what he was saying.  Suddenly all three of them were whispering to each other.  I felt a bit uneasy and my silly government theory seemed a bit less silly again.  It made sense that Thomas and Jon could both speak it.  Jon looked Japanese and for all I knew he had been born there.  If he was like a father to Thomas he probably would have taught him.  But, it was a bit of a stretch that Dani spoke it too.  He spoke English, and Greek, and Japanese?  And TS spoke Greek.  I’d met a few tri, and even polylingual people before.  But with all the other weird things going on the fact that all three of them were at least bilingual, in the same language no less, was very suspicious.
     Even worse, they all kept glancing at me.  They weren’t talking about me, were they?  TS sat down in the chair on my other side, nodded to me, and then looked curiously at the others.  I was about to say something along the lines of ‘Annoying when people speak languages you don’t know, isn’t it?’ hoping they’d stop speaking Japanese and start explaining things to me.  Before I could TS’ eyes grew wide and he started speaking it too!  This wasn’t a coincidence; not if all four of them could speak it.  Maybe they all worked for a Japanese company; that would explain things.  But that seemed like pretty serious work for a bunch of college students.
     They stopped talking and all started staring at me.
     “What?” I demanded. 
     “Let’s eat first,” Jon said.  “We have things to discuss later.”
     Was he kidding?  I had waited all this time and he wasn’t going to talk to me until we finished eating?
     They all picked up a menu and I had no choice but to do it too.  The restaurant had a jungle-tiki theme and consequently the entire menu was a big splash of greens, browns, and reds.  All of the dishes had silly names, but I noticed that it was pretty standard burger joint food.
     “You want steak?” Thomas asked.
     “Please,” TS said.  He frowned at his menu and then shut it.  “Thanks.”
     Thomas nodded and studied his own menu.  “Jungle Sacrifice?  Twenty-four ounce steak with fries.”
     TS grinned.  “Perfect, thanks, Tom.”
     That was a bit odd, but I didn’t get to think on it for too long; Jon waved a waitress over and we all ordered.  They started up a conversation as soon as she left and kept it up until our food arrived.  They chatted about all sorts of nonsense while we ate.  Most of it was telling Jon about their time in Mexico.  TS kept complaining that his steak wasn’t rare enough, which baffled me.  I like my meat sort of rare, but I didn’t think his could have been any rarer without being raw.  Thomas got a huge appetizer sampler which, to my surprise, he easily ate by himself.  TS snagged some things off of it, but Thomas ate most of it alone.  Considering how skinny he was I would have assumed he’d get a salad or something.  He couldn’t possibly have eaten like this all the time.  Dani got a big hamburger with tons of toppings and Jon opted for some spicy chicken.  Had I not been annoyed by the fact they weren’t being very forthcoming, I would have enjoyed my wings, fries, and milkshake more.  The food on the ship was good, but not great.  The food in the ports, so far, had been amazing, but I did miss a good taste of home.
     We were almost done when Jon said, “Fend, let’s make sure.”
     An adorable little black bird came out of nowhere and landed on the table.  It looked like a little hummingbird.
     “Enjoying your dinner, Jennifer?” a male voice said.
     I looked around for the source of the voice.  “Who said that?” I asked.  It hadn’t been nearly deep enough for TS and was a bit higher than Thomas and Jon too.
     “Me!  Right here!”  The little bird hopped up and down.
     For a moment, I just stared at it.  The bird was talking.  No, no that was impossible.  It must have been a prank of some kind.  “Wow,” I said.  “That’s impressive.”
     “What is?” Jon asked.
     “The ventriloquist act.”  I hadn’t seen any of their mouths move, but that was the only explanation.  “And the trained bird.  What is it, a hummingbird?”  I hadn’t realized hummingbirds could be trained.
     “I’m a raven,” the voice said indignantly.
     “Right,” I laughed.  “You could almost convince me the bird is talking, but I’m not so gullible that I’ll believe it’s a raven.”
     They all exchanged a look.  Jon said something softly in Japanese and they all nodded.  Once again, before I could demand my answers, the waitress appeared.  Jon took the check without hesitation.
     “I can pay,” I said.
     “No no, I invited you here,” he said calmly.  He paid for all of us without batting an eye.  Then, he stood and bowed to me.  “Pleasure to meet you, Jennifer.  I hope to see you again.  Thomas, a moment?”  With that, he walked away.  Thomas got up and followed him.
     For a moment I just sat in shock.  He hoped to see me again?  He sounded like he was just going to walk away without giving me any answers.  I started to get up when Dani grabbed my arm.
     “Relax.  You’ll get a better explanation than you ever dreamed.”  He let go and I had to rub my arm to warm it back up; his hand had been freezing.
     I heard a growl and looked up in surprise.  TS was glaring in the direction that Jon and Thomas had gone and was literally growling softly.  He got up and Dani stood and blocked his way.
     “He’s fine, let Jon talk,” Dani said.  He didn’t seem at all concerned that TS could probably have crushed him.  I noticed for the first time that he was actually just a bit taller than TS was.  He sighed.  “You know I agree with what he’s probably saying to Thomas.”
     TS bit his lip and hung his head.  “I do too,” he whispered, like it was almost painful to admit.  “Tom’s really getting…”  He hesitated, glanced at me, and then switched to Japanese.
     Dani looked concerned and answered.  Strangely enough, as they spoke, TS sounded like he was using Japanese and Dani seemed to be speaking Greek.
     “Are you both speaking different languages?” I finally demanded.
     They exchanged one last worried look, then both laughed.  “My Japanese listening comprehension is a lot better than my speaking skills are,” Dani said.
     “Same with my Greek,” TS said.  “I’m sure it sounds insane, but it works.”
     “How many languages do you two speak?”
     “I speak seven,” TS said.  “But my Greek is sort of shaky.”
     “Four,” Dani said.  “Japanese is my weakest, but that’s just because I’m lazy.  English was harder to learn.”
     “English is your second language?” I was pleased that I had guessed that.
     “Third.  Panth was my first.”
     I frowned, I had never heard of that one.  “What is that?”
     Dani and TS glanced at each other.  “Panthalassish,” Dani said.  “I’ll explain later.”
     More secrets.  I was intrigued, but annoyed at yet another promise of ‘later.’  I noticed they were both looking past me and turned to see Thomas was back, without Jon.
     “Right,” he said, “I’m going out.  Shouldn’t take more than an hour, Jon found some er…” he glanced at me and said something in Japanese.  Oh this was getting very frustrating.  “I’ll meet you back on the boat.”
     “Ship,” Dani said.  Thomas tried to punch him and Dani snapped up his hand, caught Thomas’ wrist, and twisted it away.  His smug look faded instantly and he frowned.  He looked concerned.
     Thomas yanked his hand free and looked away, like he was almost embarrassed.  He cleared his throat, then turned to me.  “Come to my room on the ship in an hour.  We’ll explain everything.”
     Wait, he was putting it off again?  “That’s what you’ve been saying!  How do I know you’ll really explain things this time?”
     “Trust me,” he said.  He looked off to the side and sighed.  “I better go.  See you in an hour.”  He turned and left the restaurant.
     Dani called his name, but Thomas ignored him.
     “Don’t worry, I’m going to go with him,” TS said.  “Jen, we’re in room 3120.”  He and Thomas were roommates?  I sighed; things just keep getting more and more interesting.   
     “Tethys,” Dani called.  “Make sure he gets enough, I’m worried about him.”
     “You know I will, Danio,” TS said.
     “Back to the ship?” Dani asked me when TS jogged off.
     “I suppose.”
     We walked down to the dock in silence and stood to wait for the lifeboat.  It was just leaving the ship and would probably take ten minutes to get to us. 
     “Are you really going to explain things?” I asked after a moment.
     “We will, I promise,” Dani said.  He looked around.  “You know what, I’m going to go see if I can bother Charlie.  I’m regretting not signing up for that sunset canal transit trip.”
     I looked around; the sun was already going down.  “His trip has probably already left.”
     “Well, with any luck it’s not in a lock yet.”  Dani paused in thought.  “I could always…hmm no, Charlie would kill me if I tried to swim the canal.”
     “Swim the canal?” I asked skeptically.  “As in, swim through the locks?”
     “Yeah.  But, I won’t.  I am going to try and catch up with that trip though.  Maybe I can sneak on.  I’ll see you in an hour in Thomas’ room.” 
     Dani glanced around, then dove right off the dock and into the water.  Even though I knew that he had swum here from somewhere out in the ocean, my jaw dropped in shock.  I looked around, waiting for him to surface, but he didn’t.  It almost made me panic, but I had a feeling that he could probably hold his breath for a long time.  For an insane second, I wondered if he even needed to breathe at all, but quickly discarded the idea.  As cool as it would be if there really was something supernatural going on, I knew it wouldn’t be anything that neat.
     I still hadn’t seen any sign of Dani when the lifeboat arrived and I accepted that he really had been serious about going to find the boat Charlie was on.  After getting back on the ship I went back to my room and tried to pass the hour with a textbook, but just couldn’t concentrate.  I ended up going out on deck to where Dani had first gone overboard.  I had a great view of the port and could see the lights from the canal in the distance. 
     “Pretty, huh?”
     I turned to see Dani had joined me.
     “Yeah,” I said.  “What happened to finding Charlie?”
     “Too late.  The boat was already in the lock.”  He shrugged.  “Probably better that I stay here anyway.”
     “To explain things?”
     He nodded.  “Actually, I’m going to go wait for Thomas.  See you in…” He trailed off and looked for a clock.  “Well, I’ll see you there.”
     Dani left and I resisted the urge to follow and demand he start explaining.  I spent the rest hour with all the questions that had been building up just running through my head.  The one that kept coming back was ‘were they actually going to explain everything?’  Dani had obviously hurried off before I could ask him anything.
When the hour was up I headed down to 3120 and knocked.  Thomas opened the door and I followed him in.  TS and Dani were there too.  A part of me that had been expecting Jon to be smuggled onto the ship to explain things was disappointed to see he wasn’t with them.  Dani and TS were sitting on the same bed and Thomas sat down with them.  I nervously sat down on the other bed across from them.  I felt sort of like I was about to be interrogated or something.  There were butterflies in my stomach from a mix of curiosity and concern.  They were obviously going to tell me now, I could tell from their expressions.  But, they all looked very serious.  I had an odd feeling in my gut that something huge was about to happen.
     “I’d like to wait for Char and Mariana,” Thomas said.  “But, I think you’ll go nuts if we don’t explain now.”

~~~

Get to know the gang better!

Semester Aboard is published by Anchor Group Publishing!

Chapter Three

As promised here is Chapter Three of Semester Aboard!  If you have missed them, I strongly suggest reading chapters one and two first!  I hope you enjoy it!

Read Chapter One Here

Read Chapter Two Here

Chapter Three

No. Thomas was not going to come stalk me in my own room.

“Look, I just told Dani, I’m not going to tell people! Do you really have to follow me around like this?”

Thomas smiled. “I just thought you might want to know that I heard back from Jon.”

Oh. That changed things a bit. “What does he have to say?”

Thomas glanced up and down the hall. “May I come in? I’d rather not discuss this in the hallway.”

“Fine.” I stepped aside and held the door open. He didn’t move; he just shifted his weight like he was waiting. “Well?” I leaned forward and grabbed him. “Hurry up, I want to get this over with.” I tried to pull him into the room, but something happened. He tripped, or I tripped, and we fell. It almost felt like he had pulled himself out of my grip and had fallen deliberately. I tumbled back into my room, and he fell out into the hall. He sat up and winced, like he was in pain.

“Oh, come on,” I snapped. “Either get in here and tell me what you have to say so that you can stop stalking me or go away!”

He smiled, stood back up, and slid past me into the room. He regarded the beds for a moment and sat on the one that wasn’t mine. That was a bit creepy. Actually, it was really creepy. The crew had just made them, and I didn’t know how he knew which bed was which. Nevertheless, I sat down across from him.

“So,” I began, “Jon.”

Thomas sighed. “Jon.” He bit his lip like he was wondering how to say things. “So, Jon is my boss.”

“Your boss?”

“Well, actually he’s higher up than that. He’s the head of our agency.”

Agency? That caught my attention. Agency was a government term. For an absurd moment, I thought that he worked for the government, but quickly pushed the idea aside. He was just a college student. There was no way he worked for some government agency. Plus, it had to be a pretty small company. If this Jon guy really had a position that much higher than Thomas, he wouldn’t be personally corresponding with him or TS. Then, something else occurred to me, and I felt like an idiot for never even considering it before. They had all known each other to begin with. Out of 307 students, I was the only one from my school, and I had only heard of one other from my state. Mariana and Dani of course knew each other, but they had to have known the others before the voyage started. They wouldn’t all be sticking together like this, if they didn’t. And suddenly, things seemed a bit stranger.

“And what you saw…” Thomas continued. “Well, you shouldn’t have. I had to report it, and I figured I’d just go right to the top. Jon wants to talk to you.”

“Like, on the phone? Did you get my number while you were stalking me?”

“867-5309, right?” Thomas asked, looking like he was trying to hide a grin.

It took me half a second to recognize the number. I glared at him when I did. “Wrong Jenny.”

He laughed. I realized that it was the first time I’d heard a genuine laugh from him. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a cute laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, still chuckling. “Bad joke. I didn’t think you’d know that song.”

I rolled my eyes. “It has my name in it. You’re far from the first person to make that joke. It is a catchy song though.”

“Most 80s songs are.” He turned serious again. “Anyway, no, he’s not going to call you. He’s coming to Panama.”

“What?” We’d be in Panama in two days. Why on earth would the head of the agency or whatever come all the way to Panama? “Let me get this straight,” I said. “The Big Boss is coming here just to talk to me?”

“Well, I assume he wants to see me too.”

“Why?” There was no way this supposedly high-up guy was going to come all the way to Panama to talk to one girl and see a random employee.

“He’s … sort of like my father.”

“Sort of? He either is or he isn’t.”

Thomas shrugged and looked uncomfortable. “He took care of me after my father died.”

I felt embarrassed for pushing the issue. My first instinct was to say I was sorry, but I knew from experience that people offering sympathy about a dead parent didn’t always mean much. Instead I said, “My father’s dead too.”

He looked surprised that we had something like that in common. “I’m …” He hesitated, and I had a feeling he felt the same way I did.

“Thanks,” I said softly.

He nodded, and we shared a small smile. Then, he sighed and, after a moment, spoke again. “I’m not entirely sure when Jon will be here. Sometime after we get to Panama.”

“What exactly is he talking to me about?” Thomas obviously didn’t want to talk any more about his father. But, that was all right with me. I didn’t want to talk about mine either.

“About … the other night,” Thomas said. Just like that, my empathy from our last topic vanished. I had guessed that much. More dancing around the truth.

“Is he going to explain things?”

It seemed like he hesitated. “Yes. And,” he added quickly, “until he does, you have to continue to keep quiet.”

“And then?” It seemed like I really did have to wait at least two more days until they stopped hiding things from me.

“Then, uh …” Thomas paused in thought. “Well, then, you’ll know. And you’ll still keep quiet. ‘Secrets are no fun, unless I am a part of one’, right?”

That was, I hated to admit, true. All I really wanted was to know what I had seen and get my questions answered. If I knew what was really going on, I probably would keep it a secret.

“Yeah. I won’t tell anyone,” I said. “If you promise that it’ll all be explained.”

“Oh, it will,” Thomas said with a smile. He stood. “I should go.”

“Are you guys going to keep stalking me?”

“We’ll ease up a bit.”

“Fine.”

Thomas let himself out, and I sat on my bed, replaying our conversation. Maybe this was bigger than I had thought. Had I really seen something so important that this “boss” was going to come all the way to Panama to talk to me? I took another moment to entertain the idea that they worked for the government. Had I stumbled onto some secret government experiment? They wouldn’t be using a bunch of college kids on a cruise ship, would they? I lay back with a sigh and thought for a while. Even though they were going to give me my answers in two days, I decided that I wanted to try and figure it out first. I liked a good mystery, and I had just found myself smack in the middle of a very odd one.

I put off going to dinner for as long as I could to puzzle it out, but finally decided to go up before they started putting the food away. On the way there, I stopped by the Student Life Desk. The wall across from it was covered in pictures of every student on the ship, like a giant yearbook page. It listed our names, birthdays, schools, majors, and expected graduation dates. I didn’t know their last names, which was how the wall was organized, so I knew it would be a challenge. The pictures were all too small to be useful, so I had to scan every single name and squint at the corresponding picture. It took a few minutes, but I found them all. Mariana Bar – she must have kept her last name – was majoring in International Affairs at a school in New York. Thomas Clark and Tethys – which explained why he went by TS – Conall were majoring in International Affairs too. My breath caught. They went to the same school as Mariana. A minute later, I found a bio for Daniel Pelagos, and then, I spotted one for Charles Smith. A chill ran up my spine. There was no way that this was a coincidence. All of them went to the same school and had the same major?

It was satisfying to have confirmed that they must have known each other before the voyage, but the student bios had left me with more questions than answers. I headed for the dining room, mulling over the new information. There was no line at the buffet, so I grabbed a plate and started loading up. Most of the lettuce had already been taken, and it looked like they weren’t going to replace it. I piled some veggies on my plate and moved on to the hot foods. The pasta looked rubbery and cold; I had waited too long to go up. I scooped out of a spoonful of the International Choice, some beef dish it looked like, and grabbed a fillet of tonight’s fish. I grabbed a couple of rolls out of the basket at the end of the buffet and looked around the dining room for a seat.

The professors had been and gone, and it looked like most of the students were finishing up. A table over by a window caught my eye, and I watched the occupants carefully. Charlie, TS, and Mariana sat next to each other and talked. Dani and Thomas sat next to each other with a textbook between them. There was an empty place next to Dani. Thomas glanced up from his book, and his eyes met mine. He tilted his head at the empty spot and smiled. I squared my shoulders and walked over. I sat down and braced myself.

“Good evening, Jennifer,” Thomas said pleasantly.

“Hiya, Jen,” Charlie said, grinning from across the table.

TS grunted a hello from around a bunch of food and speared another forkful. Dani waved but kept his eyes on the notebook he was holding.

Mariana smiled at me too. “The sea bass is really good.”

“Great.” I grabbed a fork and cut off a chunk to try.

Then, they all returned to what they had been talking about before. I was content to eat quietly and observe the strange group. TS had a big pile of fish and International Choice on his plate, and there was a large pitcher of the evening’s juice next to him. Thomas grabbed it and refilled TS’s glass. TS said nothing, but started drinking. He looked sort of sick. He was pale and seemed more quiet than usual.

“Eat up,” Thomas said to him.

TS snorted softly in Thomas’ direction, but shoved another forkful of International Choice into his mouth. He wrinkled his nose and took another long drink.

“Spicy isn’t it?” Charlie asked with a big grin. He took another big bite and chewed happily. “What country was this from again?”

“Ethiopia,” Dani said absently. “Thomas, you’re killing me.” He shoved the notebook away from him.

“What class is that for?” I asked.

“Climate,” Thomas said. “And what? Is it wrong?”

“It’s a disaster,” Dani laughed. “I’m getting a headache just looking at it.”

“Excuse me for not having a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science,” Thomas said.

Dani rolled his eyes and picked the notebook back up. I frowned. Was Thomas implying that Dani had a Master’s Degree? Less than ten minutes ago, I had read that he had another semester to go before getting a B.S. and was only turning twenty-two in the fall. Even if he had already graduated, there was no way Dani could have a Master’s.

“Are you just making stuff up?” Dani demanded. He flipped through a couple of pages. “This entire page is wrong too!”

“What?” Thomas yelped. He frowned at the page in confusion. “How is this wrong?” Dani started to smirk and Thomas narrowed his eyes at him. “You’re such a dick! Is any of this wrong?”

“Nope.”

Thomas glared. “I might kill you.”

“Come on, Tommy. You know I only tease you because I have a secret crush on you.”

“God help me,” Thomas muttered. “And don’t call me that.”

“He gets to.” Dani jabbed his thumb in TS’s direction.

Thomas glared. “That’s because he isn’t referring to the rock opera.”

“Can’t prove that I am,” Dani said.

Thomas sighed and rolled his eyes. “Except I know that you are.”

“For a deaf, dumb, and blind kid, you really are observant,” Dani said.

Thomas groaned. “Charlie, do something, please.”

Charlie held up his hands helplessly. “Don’t drag me into this; I’m innocent.”

“I’m knackered. I’m going to bed,” TS announced. He stood slowly, grabbed his tray, and headed off.

“Is he sick?” I asked.

They all exchanged a strange look.

“It’s a boat,” Thomas said. “We’ve all been sick.”

“Actually, it’s a ship,” Dani corrected.

“I will murder you in your sleep,” Thomas told him.

“I’ll leave the door unlocked for you,” Mariana said.

“Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll make sure Teth finds his way to bed,” Thomas stood and nodded to me. “Night, guys.” He turned to me. “Sleep well. I’ll keep my promise if you will.”

I nodded. I couldn’t meet this Jon guy fast enough. Charlie returned to his food, and Dani pushed the fish bones on his plate around. I followed their lead and quickly finished eating. The Ethiopian food was so spicy that I kept refilling my water. The pitcher ran out, and I looked around for more.

“Can have mine.” Charlie pushed his glass toward me. He kept eating, and I realized he hadn’t once taken a sip of water.

“Aren’t you thirsty? This stuff is really spicy.”

“I like it hot,” Charlie said with a wink. He winced and glared at Dani, who looked smug, and I assumed he had kicked Charlie under the table.

Dani slid out his chair and stood. “I should get going. I still have that essay for L.A. History.”

“I’m done, too,” I said.

“Yeah, me, too,” Mariana agreed.

The four of us took up our trays and headed down to Deck Four. Dani, Mariana, and I peeled off into the corridor, and Charlie continued down the stairs to Deck Three.

“Night,” Dani said, stopping at his room.

“Sweet dreams,” Mariana added.

“Goodnight.”

I curled up on my bed with a textbook and read. When Laurie came back to the room, she asked me to proofread her Latin American History essay. I offered her mine in exchange. When we were done reading and correcting, we turned on the TV. The first channel was the Ship channel. We watched for a moment, as the little icon of the ship sailed closer to Panama. When the screen changed to a display of announcements, we changed channels again. A special on the Panama Canal, a movie, and another movie. The second movie was just starting, so we put that on and laid back.

Before I knew it, Laurie’s alarm was going off. I rolled over and waited the twenty minutes until mine went off, before I got up to shower. I got out just as she got back from the gym. We went up to breakfast together and grabbed a table with Carrie from my Plants class and a girl from one of Laurie’s classes. TS walked by and nodded to me. I smiled and nodded back. He sat down with a couple of Professors nearby, but true to Thomas’ word, not at my table. Maybe they really were going to ease up. He looked a lot better this morning and dug right into what looked like nothing but bacon and sausage.

During Latin American History, Dani sat a couple of rows behind me, but once again not close enough to be a pain. Charlie walked near, but not with, me to our Plants class. I sat down next to Carrie, and Charlie sat on her other side. Nobody showed up to my other two classes. After Spanish, I got a smoothie and stretched out on deck in the sun. I noticed Thomas settle into a nearby lounge chair with a book a couple of minutes later, but he didn’t talk to me. They left me alone during dinner as well. I noticed that TS, Thomas, and Charlie ate alone and wondered where Dani and Mariana were. I still didn’t see them when everyone gathered in the Latin American History classroom for an evening lecture about docking in Panama.

Later that night, I crept into a classroom to find a quiet place to study. A few people were studying, but most were finished and wandered the ship, being loud. About an hour went by before I heard voices outside the door. I recognized Charlie’s voice and closed my book to listen. It sounded like a study-group. I was about to return to my book, when a loud song started to play. I looked in the direction of the door curiously; it was Part of Your World from A Little Mermaid. A silhouette outside of the frosted glass door stood and started for the door.

“Excuse me,” Charlie said.

I could see his shadow moving toward the classroom door. Before I realized what I was doing, I dropped down out of my desk and slid behind a couch. Was I seriously hiding from Charlie? The door opened, and he stepped in, Part of Your World still blaring. He closed the door again, and I felt my heart beating wildly. This was ridiculous. Charlie was part of some strange secret, yes, but I felt almost scared. From the way my heart was pounding at the thought of him finding me, I could have been hiding from a murderer or something. I closed my eyes and pressed my back against the couch. Too late to stand back up. I’d look like a total idiot. The song stopped abruptly.

“Hey,” Charlie said. “What’s up? … Danio? Why are you calling me on Mariana’s phone?”

A cell phone ringtone, of course. I almost laughed at myself.

“Toasty,” Charlie said with a laugh. “Well, I guess it’ll end up part of a coral reef or something … Of course, I’m laughing at you…What? You aren’t seriously considering looking for it. Do you realize how hard it would be to find a phone in the ocean? … I thought as much. Anyway, did you get there alright? … Of course I was worried! You know how I feel about water.”

I frowned, what on earth was he talking about? I was pretty sure he was talking to Dani, I’d heard them call him “Danio” before. But where was he? Why would he call Charlie from somewhere else on the ship?

“Yeah, yeah. Hey, what’s all that noise? … Oh, it’s Fend? Hi Fend! So Jon’s already there, then?”

I froze. Jon?

“Yeah, sure … Hey, Jon! … Nah, everything’s toasty here. What’s the plan? … Dinner tomorrow? … Yeah, I’ll tell her. I think we dock at nine … Oh, I don’t know what her trip is tomorrow … No, it won’t be overnight; there aren’t any of those in Panama, but my trip will be out late … Hot! I’ll see you then … Hi, Mariana … Swim was good? … Toasty, toasty … Yeah, I heard … Where are you and Dani staying? … Oh, okay … Tell me there’s a sauna there! … Hot! … Yeah, yeah … Why not, put him on … Hiya! So where’s dinner? … Right on the dock, huh? Do they have hot wings? … Phew! I miss spicy food. That’ll be great … Yeah, TS’ll be thrilled! Can’t get him to shut up about rare meat … Okay, so burger place on the dock at eight. What is that, fifteen-hundred? … I was kidding! Twenty. I know … Yeah, I don’t think I’ll make it, but I’ll tell Jen … Right, I love you too. See you tomorrow.”

Charlie left the room. I sighed and leaned against the couch. More mysteries. How was the swim? He couldn’t mean … Mariana and Dani couldn’t have swum from the ship to Panama! I went over to the window and looked out, no shore in sight. We had a good twelve hours of travel left to go. Swimming was impossible. And yet I had a feeling that Dani could have done it. He must have, and Mariana too! Then, there was that ‘I love you’. Charlie couldn’t have been talking to Jon. Maybe, what was the name, Fend? I heaved another sigh. I had hoped his conversation would clear things up. Now I was even more confused.

I dragged studying on until long after I heard Charlie’s group leave. When I got back to my room, I found a folded note stuck to my door. I grabbed it and squinted at the sloppy handwriting.

Jen – Jon’s in panama. wants to meet you. dinner at a burger place right on the dock at 8 tomorrow night. can’t miss it. will your trip be over by then? drop by my room or call me – 3044 and let me know! – Charlie

Well, why not? I grabbed the ship phone off of my roommate’s desk and dialed the room number.

“Hello?”

“Charlie?” I asked.

“No, it’s Mark. Charlie’s not here.”

Mark, hmm? I wondered if Mark was in on their little secret. “Can you tell him that Jen says eight o’clock is fine?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Thanks, bye.”

I sighed after hanging up. A part of me was excited to dock in our second country and see new things. I couldn’t wait for my trip tomorrow. And yet there was another part of me that just wanted to skip the clock up to dinner so that I could find out just what was up with these people. It was a miracle that I fell asleep at all.

I got up early enough for the tradition of watching the sunrise in port, but it was too rainy and cloudy to see anything. The sunrise in Mexico had been spectacular. Disappointed, I went to breakfast much earlier than usual. I spotted Charlie across the dining room, but didn’t see anybody else. Maybe Dani and Mariana really had somehow gotten off the ship early. I ate quickly, hoping to avoid Charlie. I knew that he couldn’t have known that I overheard his phone call, but with all the strange things happening, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did.

He caught me anyway. “Hey, Jen. Did you get my note?”

“Yeah. I left a message with um …”

“Mark,” he said dryly. “Figures. Does eight work?”

“Yeah.”

“Toasty. Have a good day!”

Much to my relief, he didn’t say anything else. I went back to my room to get ready and made my way to the gangway to disembark. We couldn’t dock in Panama, we had to anchor out in the bay and use our lifeboats to cruise into the dock. They separated us into groups of twenty to fill the lifeboats and let us out one at a time. When it was finally our turn we lined up and swiped our ID’s to check ourselves off of the ship.

“Hello again!”

Just my luck, Charlie, TS, and Thomas were all in my group. I grumbled a greeting back to Charlie. Thomas nodded at me before stepping through the metal detector. He swiped his ID and headed for the small staircase that led down to the lifeboat. The girl behind him did the same and moved through the metal detector.

“Oh my god, he fell in the water!” the girl in front of Charlie screamed.

The crewmember checking us off of the ship raced forward. “Stay here!”

I could hear everyone on the lifeboat freaking out and the crewmembers shouting orders. I craned my neck but couldn’t see what was happening. I noticed movement and looked over at Charlie. Rather than trying to see what was happening, Charlie had calmly swiped his ID. I looked at the screen where our data appeared and to my surprise saw Dani’s picture appeared with Daniel Pelagos above it. Charlie slid the ID into his pocket, pulled out another, and swiped it as well. The name Mariana Bar and her picture popped up, too. Charlie turned and noticed I was watching. He shot me a look that plainly said to keep quiet.

The checkout crewmembers returned.

“Everything is alright now,” one said.

“I haven’t swiped my ID yet,” Charlie told him innocently.

The man nodded and Charlie swiped his own ID, and vanished out the door. After they looked in my purse, I checked out and got onto the steps. At the bottom, two crewmembers took my arms and helped me jump from the steps into the arms of the crewmembers waiting on the boat. It was a bit freaky, but also fun. I stepped down into the lifeboat and looked for a seat. And there, soaking wet and wrapped in a blanket, was Thomas. Charlie and TS sat across from him, so I sat down in an empty chair next to him.

You’re the one who fell in?”

He nodded sheepishly. “Slipped.”

“Or did you fall in so that Charlie could use Dani and Mariana’s ID’s without anyone seeing?”

Thomas glared at me. “You are entirely too observant.”

Charlie and TS glanced at each other and shrugged.

“So, where are you off to, Tom?” TS asked. Seeing as they probably spent a lot of time together, I doubted that TS really didn’t know Thomas’ plans for the day.

“Indian village trip.”

“Me too! Keen!” They high-fived, and I rolled my eyes.

“I’m doing the half-day rainforest tour,” Charlie said. “Then, I’m taking that sunset Panama Canal boat ride.”

“I’m doing the rainforest tomorrow,” TS said, “Let me know how it is.”

“Will do. What about you, Jen?” Charlie asked.

“Lake Gatun boat tour.” As eager as I was to meet Jon and figure out what was going on, I was excited for the trip. We’d be on a boat on one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.

The little boat, rocking violently, started across the bay.

“I’m gonna be sick,” TS groaned.

“You’re fine,” Thomas said. “We’re only on for a few minutes.”

It was a short ride, and TS was practically the first person off the boat.

“Don’t forget, that restaurant down there at eight!” Charlie reminded me, pointing down the dock.

Thomas argued with the crew for a bit, before they agreed that he was perfectly fine, just a bit wet. After he pointed out that we were practically on the equator in the middle of summer and he’d dry off fast, they let him go. He and TS headed off toward the bus marked with their trip number. The bus next to it closed its door, and Charlie groaned.

“Oh clinker! That’s my trip! Gotta go. Give this to Danio, will you?” He thrust Dani’s ID at me and ran off toward his bus.

I frowned after him and made my way to my own bus. I almost felt bad that I didn’t have time to find Dani, but I didn’t want to miss my own trip. A teacher seemed to be arguing with someone, and as I went around of the front of the bus, I saw Dani. So, he was on this trip with me, then. Charlie must have known that.

“I swear, I had it when I got off the ship,” he said. “Ask anyone, I really am a student, you can’t kick me off the trip!”

“No ID, no trip,” the teacher said.

“Dani!” I called and hurried over. “Here, I found this down on the dock.”

I handed him his ID, and he grinned.

“Thanks, Jen! You’re a lifesaver!”

We got onto the bus and ended up sitting together.

“You know, Thomas fell off of the lifeboat and into the water.”

“Really?” I noticed that he seemed curious, but not at all concerned.

“Yeah. And then Charlie used the distraction to swipe your and Mariana’s ID cards.”

Dani hummed under his breath and smirked. “You really keep an eye on us, don’t you?”

“Well, I am curious. But I meet Jon tonight, right?”

Dani nodded.

“So…how did you get here?” I asked. “Did you and Mariana jump off the ship and swim all the way to shore?” I left out the fact that ‘all the way to shore’ would have been over 100 miles.

He just smiled at me. “Everything will be explained, I promise.”

“But you did, right? If it were anybody else, I’d say that it was impossible to swim that far, especially in an ocean. But you did.”

“Keep your voice down! Yes, all right? We swam here to meet Jon.”

“Last night.”

Dani looked shocked.

“You weren’t at dinner.”

“Fine, fine. Keelhaul me, why don’t you?” he hissed. His eyes were doing that weird thing again, where darker blues looked like they were splashing with his normal color. “Yes, we did. Now drop it.”

He turned away from me, and I knew that the conversation was over. He and Mariana had swum from a ship in the ocean to shore in the middle of the night. It just wasn’t possible. The more I tried to figure it out, the more supernatural my thoughts became. I decided that I needed to lay off the fantasy books.

The trip went well. We took the boat around the little islands on the lake and saw some huge ships bound for the Panama Canal. There were monkeys in the trees and crocodiles in the water. While we ate lunch, I noticed that Dani was nowhere to be seen, but when we all went to a swimming hole after lunch, he was back. I climbed up some rocks and sat down by a small waterfall. I watched Dani while he swam below me, half hoping that he’d do something out of the ordinary. A few minutes later, he scaled the rocks and settled down next to me.

“Done swimming?” I asked. “Isn’t that your thing?”

He let out another one of his lyrical hums and leaned back against a rock. “Don’t like the water,” he said with a shrug. “This little swimming hole is gross.”

I looked down at the water; it looked fine to me. Dani stretched out in the sun, and I realized that he hadn’t changed into a swimsuit; he was still wearing his shorts and t-shirt.

“Your clothes are going to be wet for hours.”

Dani chuckled. “You think wet clothes are going to bother me?”

His eyes were their usual cheery blue, but in the sunlight I could swear that the irises were still slowly moving. It reminded me of gentle waves.

“So, where were you?” I asked.

“Hmm?”

“During lunch. You vanished.”

He narrowed his eyes, and I could see the flecks of blue-gray appearing. “I was around.” His tone sounded worried, and I realized that “worried” was the exact word I’d use to describe what his eyes did too. I thought of Charlie and how his flared red when he got upset. It was like their eyes reacted to their emotions! It was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. A little voice in the back of my mind kept saying inhuman.

“We ate lunch on a tiny boat. You weren’t there.”

His eyes got even lighter, but streaks of dark blues starting churning in. It was fascinating and so strange to watch. “Maybe I was hiding to make you suspicious.”

I glared at him. Then, without another word, he slid down off of the rocks and jumped back into the water.

I didn’t talk to him until we were back on the bus a couple of hours later. I had a feeling he was avoiding me. It seemed like there was a lot more to what was going on than just the fact Dani had gone overboard. With every new thing that he and the others tried to hide from me, my curiosity grew. I sat down next to him on the bus and couldn’t help but feel a bit smug that I’d stopped his avoiding-game. It was time to get some more information.

“Is Jon your boss too?”

He glared at me. “Yes,” he finally muttered. His eyes swirled to dark blue as I watched.

I never really thought of blue as an angry color, but his irises reminded me of waves during a storm. They really did react with his moods. I stared, mesmerized as they grew darker and darker. The colors in them crashed against each other like waves on rocks.

“Is there a reason you’re staring at me?” he chuckled. “I’m married, you know.”

“Sorry,” I said quickly. “It’s just …” Just what? Your eyes are weird? I didn’t think that would be very polite.

“Just?”

“Your eyes are … interesting.”

He looked confused for a moment and his eyes stayed dark, but the movement slowed. Dani studied me for a moment, almost like he was curious. “Interesting how?”

“They uh …” I wasn’t sure how to say it without sounding crazy. “Change color.” Eyes did that. Not nearly in the way that Dani’s did, but it didn’t sound as insane if I said it like that.

That got his attention. Now he was definitely curious. He almost looked surprised. “Change color? What do you mean?”

“Like, different shades of blue.” Well, now that I was telling him…”And they move. The colors sort of, I dunno, splash around. It’s like water.”

Dani’s jaw literally dropped. Then, the touch of the deep blue I had started to associate with angry splashed in his eyes. “You’re not just something messing with us, are you?”

“What?” I asked in confusion. “No, I’m not. Your eyes really do that!” I figured that was something he would have known.

Dani studied me for a moment, then whistled and hummed at the same time and looked out of the window. He looked really bothered, and I hoped I hadn’t hurt his feelings or anything. The bus stopped near the dock, and Dani wordlessly fell into step with me when I headed for the burger place. We stopped at a railing on the dock by the restaurant and leaned against it. I watched one of the lifeboats make its way from the dock to the ship in the distance. A few minutes later Dani pushed himself up off of the railing and cleared his throat.

“He’s here,” he said.

  

Chapter Two

Since I already posted Chapter One, I figure that I might as well post Chapter Two as well!  If you haven’t read Chapter One, I suggest you do!  I hope you like Chapter Two!

Read Chapter One

Chapter 2

The following morning started like any other.  I woke up and traded showers with Laurie, then went to breakfast.  Ordinarily I would have chosen a table with people at it – I liked to eat meals with people from all over the ship – but my thoughts were still whirling from the night before.  I chose an empty table by a window and sat down.  I ate slowly, looking out at the water.  It was still raining lightly and the sky was darker than usual, but it was all so different from last night that I started to wonder if maybe I had just been dreaming.  It all seemed even more ridiculous and impossible than it had last night.
A mug thumped down next to me and I turned to greet whoever had joined me.  I was shocked to see that it was Dani.  He looked tired, but otherwise showed no sign that he had fallen into the ocean less than twelve hours ago.   “I can’t believe you lied to me,” he said.
I realized that he wasn’t talking to me and looked up and saw that Mariana was settling in across from us.
“I didn’t lie; they had plenty of melon when I came up earlier.  If you could get out of bed at a reasonable time you could have had some.”  Mariana looked at me and smiled.  “Good morning, Jen.  I’m Mariana by the way.”
“Hi…”
“Hey, Jen,” Dani said.  He turned back to Mariana.  “There is nothing reasonable about seven in the morning!”  He chugged his entire mug of steaming coffee in a few gulps.
“I get up every morning at six for swim practice,” Mariana said.
“So?  I get up at five for crew.  You don’t see me bragging.”
Mariana stabbed a pineapple slice with her fork and glared at Dani.  “You get up at five at home, but complain when I try to wake you at seven?”
“Crew only takes two hours.  I’m in bed before eight and I never have class before noon.  If you wake me up at seven here then I have to stay up all day.”
Mariana pointedly turned away from him.  “So, how are you?”
“I’m fine,” I said.  Seemed like their honeymoon wasn’t off to a harmonious start.
Dani mumbled something about coffee and got up with his empty mug.
“You swim on your school team?” I asked.  I had been so occupied with Dani I had forgotten that Mariana had been dressed for swimming last night.  Maybe she had been planning on diving off of the ship too.
“I did.  I was actually doing a little kid coaching thing this spring.  Kids are fun.”  Well, she was perfectly willing to talk about that.  I had a feeling she’d be a lot less forthcoming if I asked about last night.
“Kids are a pain,” Dani said.  He sat back down and took a sip of coffee.
“You love little kids, don’t even lie,” Mariana said.  I hoped I hadn’t started another argument.
“Ember and Catalina?  Yes.  Random brats on the street?  No.”
“Ember doesn’t count a little kid anymore, you know.”
“Don’t remind me,” Dani groaned.
I ate slowly, hoping to learn more about them.  Dani seemed content to drink his coffee quietly and Mariana ate.  I looked out the window, the rain was picking up and the sky was darkening.  The waves looked a bit ominous.
“Very Poseidon Adventure, isn’t it?” Dani asked.
I turned and saw that he was looking out the window over my shoulder.
“Very what?” Mariana asked.
Poseidon Adventure,” Dani said, like it was obvious.  “With Roddy McDowall?”  Mariana shook her head.  “How have you never seen…oh forget it.”
The two argued about Dani’s apparent bad taste in old movies until the bell for Latin American History sounded.  I left the table before them, but heard them behind me all the way to the classroom.  I sat next to Laurie in our usual place and was relieved when Dani and Mariana veered off toward the other side of the room.
“Mind if I join you?” asked a deep, gravelly voice.
Laurie and I turned toward the speaker.  It was Football Guy.  Up close I could see that his eyes were dark, dark brown and his hair wasn’t just shaggy, but messy.
“Sure,” Laurie said.  “I’m Laurie, this is Jen.”
“Cheers,” he said, sitting down.  “You can call me TS.”  He had a slight accent that I couldn’t place.
Laurie giggled at him and I rolled my eyes and pulled out my notebook.  We didn’t talk during class.  When it was over Laurie lingered behind to talk to a friend.
“Gotten a reply from Jon?” I asked TS as we walked toward the door.
He looked surprised, but then laughed.  I noticed that the very tip of his tongue poked oddly out of the corner of his mouth when he did.  Instead of answering me he just turned out of the classroom and headed down a nearby stairway.  I considered going after him, but decided I didn’t want to be late for class.  Tardiness was a bit harder to get away with when your classes were all on a ship.  I turned away from the stairs and started toward the back of the ship.  My next class was on the same deck, but all the way aft, while the Latin American History classroom was all the way forward.  I had only just started walking when someone fell into step beside me.
“Picked a plant to study in Panama?”
I suppressed a groan.  Charlie.
“Not yet,” I grumbled.
“Me neither.  I’m just going to see what plants spark my interest once we get there.”
I grunted in agreement and we continued in silence.  I sat next to Carrie in class, but to my dismay Charlie gave up his usual desk near the door in favor of one closer to me.  And here I’d woken up this morning wondering if it really had been a dream.  The fact they were all practically stalking me proved that I really had seen something strange, something they didn’t want other people to see.  An hour and a half later I hurried out of the classroom, only to have him walking right next to me again.
“What’s your next class?” he asked.
“Ancient Latin American Cultures,” I snarled.
“Getting lunch first?” We all got a break between the first two and last two classes of the day.
“Yes.”
“I’ll join you for lunch then.”
He didn’t seem at all concerned that I was practically running down the halls.  I stomped down the stairs to the Deck Five dining room, grabbed a small lunch, and ate in silence.  Charlie sat next to me and read a textbook without a word.  When I stood back up and started for my next class he was right behind me.
“I know what you’re doing,” I said finally.
“Escorting you to class like a gentleman?”
I glanced at him as we walked and glared.  “You’re following me.  All of you.  Dani and Mariana and that big guy.”
“TS.”
“Whatever.  You’re trying to make sure I don’t tell anyone what I saw last night.”
Charlie smiled at me.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I stopped outside my classroom door.  “I wasn’t going to tell anybody.  I’m still trying to explain what happened to myself.  But, now that you’ve all gotten weird and stalkerish on me, I just might start talking.”
Charlie grabbed my arm and tugged me to face him.  “Don’t!”
The weird thing happened to his eyes again, but this time his face was hardly two feet from mine.  Flashes of orange and red flared in his irises and I was sure that this time it wasn’t a trick of the light.  My arm felt uncomfortably hot where his hand was.
Trying to ignore the strange thing his eyes were doing, I forced a sweet smile.  “Too bad none of you are in this class with me; it’ll make it awfully hard to spy.”
The corner of his mouth twitched into a smile and his eyes faded back to red-brown.  “Don’t bet on it,” he whispered.  Then he released my arm, waved, and strode away.
This was getting a bit creepy.  I really wasn’t planning on talking; what I had seen sounded crazy even to me.  But, I knew that I had really seen something.  The fact that they were all making attempts to keep tabs on me made me even more convinced that whatever I had seen was as strange as I thought it was.  I opened the door to the class and went over to my seat.  I glanced up to see if the Professor was there yet and froze.
Thomas was leaning against the Professor’s podium talking to him.
“Thank you very much,” Thomas said with a smile.
The Professor waved him away and Thomas crossed the room and sat down next to me.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Thomas smiled at me.  “I heard you’re watching a video on the Aztecs and asked if I could sit in.”
“What about your class?” He was actually skipping class to keep an eye on me.  I was getting more than a little creeped out.
He shrugged.  “I’d rather watch this.”
I knew my mouth was hanging open, but I didn’t really care.  He pulled out a notebook without another word and adjusted himself so that he could see the TV.  I spent more of the class glaring at him than I did watching the video.  He looked a lot different in the light than he had last night.  His eyes were somewhere between gray and green, but the color was muted, almost dull.  His skin was a bit pallid like he didn’t get out much, and I hoped he was planning on using sunscreen when we got to the equator.  Now that it was dry I could see that his hair was light brown and, without the rain matting it down, it was a totally different style, not at all emo like I had thought.  His bangs fell almost neatly across his forehead, not quite long enough to be in his eyes, and it was slightly longer in back.  I hated to admit it, but now that I could see him in better light he was cute.  Really cute, actually.  If he put on a little more weight and got a light tan he’d be really handsome.  But, I reminded myself, he was here basically spying on me which made him about as unattractive as a guy could be.
“Can I get a real answer?” I asked when class ended.
“Of course,” Thomas said, as if he actually intended to give me one.
“Are you going to follow me to my next class?” It wasn’t the question I wanted to ask, but I wanted to make sure he was capable of answers.
“Sure, I don’t mind walking with you to class.”
I glared.
“Here, I’ve got that.”  He scooped my books from my hands before I could protest and started walking.
“What were you doing in my class?”
“Watching a video, I told you that.”
I sighed, then sighed again when he turned down the hall to my next class without stopping to ask me where it was.
“Look, I know you’re following me around to make sure I don’t tell people about last night, but this is weird enough as it is.  You can at least tell me how you know my schedule.”
Thomas shrugged.  “Mariana’s a work-study student.  She helps out at the Student Life desk, so she has some extra computer access.”
I almost stopped short.  “And she what?  Looked up my class schedule?”
“Exactly.”
For some reason, confirmation that they had put extra effort into monitoring me was even more unsettling than the paranoia that they might have.  Thomas stopped without prompting in front of my Spanish classroom and handed my books back.
“Enjoy class.  Adios.”  Without another word he turned and headed back the way we had come.
I walked in and sat down, dropping my books heavily on a table.  “Well, I’d say this is a pleasant surprise, but it isn’t a surprise and it’s not at all pleasant.  What’s your story?  Flunk out of your Spanish class?”
Dani chuckled.  “I was feeling seasick this morning and missed mine.  Your teacher is kindly letting me make it up this period.”
“How generoso of her,” I said dryly.  I didn’t even bother asking Dani why he was skipping his other class.  “And why do I get the feeling that you don’t get seasick?
Dani looked a bit nervous, then quickly covered it with a grin.  Interesting.  “We should get started before the teacher yells at us for speaking English.  Como estás?”
“Malo.”
“Aww, por qué?”
“Por qué do you think?”
Dani smirked.
When class ended I gathered my books and left the room.  Dani followed wordlessly.
“How do you say creepy stalker in Spanish?” I asked.
“Yo no se,” Dani said.
We headed aft toward the staircase to Deck Seven and spotted TS going down it.
“Have you seen that?” he asked, pointing to the wall behind him.  The walls on every landing between decks were plated with glass and had a different poem painted on them.  I had stopped to read them all, they were pretty neat.  One side was written in English and the other looked like the Greek alphabet.
“Yeah,” I said.  “Ocean-y poems.”
“Glanced at it,” Dani said.
TS grinned and once again the tip of his tongue stuck out.  I couldn’t decide if it was almost cute in a weird, funny way, or just weird.  “Better read it again.”
Dani frowned and hurried up the first half of the stairs to the landing.  I followed and stood next to him as he read it.
“What?” he suddenly yelled.  He looked back and forth from the English side to the Greek side.  “Why would you do that?”
TS started laughing and his tongue lolled out a bit more.
“Seriously,” Dani said.  “That ruins the entire verse!”  He glared at the wall.  “What kind of an idiot translated this?”
“I’m so glad I’m here for this,” TS laughed.
Dani turned and said something to him in another language.  TS chuckled and replied.  Whatever he said made Dani roll his eyes and start up the second flight of stairs.
“Cheers,” TS laughed.  “Bye, Jen,” he added to me as he headed back down the other steps.
Curious, I hurried after Dani.  “Do you speak Greek?” I asked when I caught up.
“Yeah.”
I looked at his dark hair and tan skin with a fresh perspective.  “Are you from Greece?”
“Mm-hmm.”
“Oh.  You don’t have an accent.”
Dani shrugged.  “I moved to the states a long time ago.”
He pushed open the door to the Deck Seven exterior deck and we went outside.  It was still raining so I ordered hot chocolate and settled into a chair.  Dani went out from under the overhang that covered half of the deck, but stayed near me.  He dropped his elbows onto the railing and looked out over the water, ignoring the light rain.  After a minute he closed his eyes and raised his head, letting the rain splash onto his face.  He looked oddly content.
“Aren’t you cold?”  Seeing him getting rained on in just a t-shirt was making me shiver.
Dani shook his head.  I sipped my hot chocolate and thought about the night before.  I had never really had a wild imagination and was starting to wish that I did.  Judging from their behavior today I had clearly witnessed something important and secret, but couldn’t begin to imagine it.  Even though he obviously had gone overboard, I still couldn’t figure out how he could possibly have gotten back on the ship.
“Did it hurt?”
“Did what hurt?” Dani asked, looking at me in surprise.
“When you hit the water.”
Dani looked at me critically, as if wondering how much to really tell me.  His eyes looked a lot lighter and grayer than their usual cheery blue.  I would have thought it was just an optical illusion from the gray sky, but I noticed that flecks of grays and blues seemed to be moving in his eyes, almost like gentle waves.
“Yeah,” he said finally, then shrugged.  “Didn’t kill me though, so no worries there.”
“No.  Falling off of a ship didn’t kill you.”
Dani rolled his eyes.  “Just forget it.  Really.”
I didn’t stay on the deck as long as I usually did.  Dani followed me back to my room and I stopped outside of it.
“I’m not going to tell anyone from inside my room,” I said.  “Laurie isn’t even here.  Besides, I’m not planning on telling anyone anyway.  But, you know, the more you guys follow me around the more curious you’re going to make me.”
He hummed under his breath.  It looked like he was annoyed, but the hum was oddly lyrical.  Now there were bits of darker blue in his eyes, swirling with the lighter blue.  I didn’t care that it wasn’t physically possible; his irises were actually moving.  “See you at dinner then,” he said before heading back down the hall.  I stared after him for a moment.  I’d never seen anybody with eyes that did that.  No, I realized; I had.  Charlie’s eyes were weird too.
I slammed my door behind me; at last, I was free.  At least until they forcibly joined me for dinner.  But my freedom didn’t last.  I growled when someone knocked on the door just a few minutes later.  I opened it and was disappointed, but not surprised, to see Thomas.

Chapter Three
Buy it on Amazon

Chapter One

 

Young Adult Urban Fantasy

Jen is looking forward to spending an entire summer studying abroad on a cruise ship and she knows the experience will change her life. Then she sees something she wasn’t supposed to see, something she can’t explain. Jen finds herself thrust into a world she never knew existed and her life will change more than she imagined. That is, if she can survive the dangers lurking on the ship…

Chapter 1

     A taxi cab raced down the dock, came to a stop, and a girl laden with shopping bags flew out.  Everyone at the rails of the ship yelled as she rushed toward the gangway.  She was a ‘runner’, one of the students who had pushed the all-aboard time to the limit.  She vanished into the ship to a mix of boos and cheers.

   “She’s going to be cleaning tables tomorrow,” my roommate, Laurie, snickered.
   Most of us had taken the all-aboard time and subsequent punishments for being late seriously, and had been on the ship for over an hour.  The majority of the people watching the runners had changed into pajama bottoms or sweatshirts with Semester Aboard-Study Abroad written on them.  We were students on a cruise ship that had been turned into a floating campus.  Instead of studying abroad for a summer in one country we were traveling down the western coast of Latin America.  Our ship had classrooms, a dining hall, dorm rooms, even a work-out room and a pool.
   “Look there’s another!” called Dani.  He pointed to another cab speeding down the dock.
   Even though it had been ten days since our voyage had started I still didn’t know half of the 307 students.  I had just met Dani earlier today.  We had ended up next to each other on a bus that took us on a tour of Acapulco.  Every country had a bunch of trips to choose from and you never knew who else on the ship would end up with you.  It turned out that Dani and I were just four rooms apart and had never seen each other before today!  I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d missed him.  He was really tall, with short hair and tan, olive skin.  His hair had looked black on the bus, but once I saw it in the sun I was pretty sure that he dyed it midnight blue.  And he was drop-dead gorgeous with a personality to match.  He was incredibly friendly and outgoing.  We had spent the entire bus ride chatting and when I had mentioned that I didn’t recognize anybody else on the bus, he offered to stick around so I’d have somebody to talk to.  We ended up spending the entire tour together.
    “Dani!” someone called.  We both turned to see a boy winding his way between people and tables toward us.  He had wavy red hair and looked like he’d gotten sunburned in Mexico.  I was pretty sure he could pull off the natural redhead look, but I could see streaks where the red dye, which was a bit too bright to be natural, had faded to orange and blonde.  It gave his head an almost flaming appearance, which, I had a feeling applied to more than just his hair.  He was in one of my classes and I racked my brain for his name.  He didn’t sit next to me, but we’d talked a bit before our class had started.
    “Hey, Charlie,” Dani said.
    “How was the city?” he asked, joining us at the rail.  I noticed that he wasn’t much taller than me.  He was sort of stocky, but not overweight.
     “It was fun,” Dani gestured to me, “Jen, here, was with me.”
     “See anything good?”
    “The fort was pretty splashy,” Dani said.  “How was your mountain biking?”
    “Toasty.  I saw like a dozen Chupacabras.”
    “No, you didn’t,” Dani laughed.
    “Yes, I did!”
    I laughed and turned my attention back to the runners while they argued.  The last of the late students climbed aboard and dock workers started undoing the mooring lines.  By now just about everyone, including faculty, had gathered on the deck.  Mexico was our first port and we’d been inside for orientation the first time the ship had left a dock.  We cheered as the ship started to pull away.
    “Adios Mexico!” someone yelled.
    “Vaya con dios!”
    We waved at the scattered people on the dock until we were too far away to see them in the dark.  The wind started to pick up as the ship cruised along past the lights of the buildings on the edges of the bay.  People gradually started to disperse.
    “Class in the morning,” Laurie reminded me with a groan.
    “Ugh.”  We had classes every day we were at sea and the first one started bright and early at eight.
    We wove our way through the crowd and back inside the ship, and joined the scattered people going down to their rooms.  After we reached the fourth deck we turned off the stairway and into a brightly lit, long corridor that spanned the entire length of the ship.  Doors to our cabins lined both sides of it.  Long railings ran along the walls, but so far I hadn’t needed to use them.  As Laurie and I walked down the hall I spotted two now familiar faces.  Charlie was leaning against the outside wall, laughing, while Dani swiped his ID card over and over on a door.
    “Would you stop laughing?” Dani grumbled.
    “I told you not to put it in the same pocket as your phone,” Charlie said.
    “Are you locked out again?” cried a voice behind me.
    I turned to see a girl striding down the hall toward us.  I’d seen her around the ship before; she looked like a supermodel.  She was tall with thick, wavy blonde hair that looked like it had green streaks in it.  She had dark blue eyes and a figure that women paid thousands for.  I noticed that she had on a tee-shirt that said Marlins Swim Team, which explained her green hair.  She was probably a great swimmer; she definitely had the body for it.
    “How else am I going to carry it?  It’s not like I have a purse!” Dani asked.
    “Get your ID punched and put it on that lanyard they gave us,” the blonde sighed.  She shoved Dani out of the way, swiped her ID, and opened the door.  Halfway in, she turned back to Dani with a condescending look.  “If you get locked out one more time, I’m not letting you back in.”
    Dani had to lunge forward to catch the door as it closed.  Charlie laughed and followed them in.  Wait…the blonde girl and Dani were roommates?  With the exception of some of the professors and staff who had brought their families all of the rooms on the ship were single-sex.  I knew for a fact Dani was a student.
    “Are they roommates?” I asked Laurie.
    “Yeah, that’s Mariana and Dani.  They’re married.”
    “What?  Seriously?”  It actually wasn’t that hard to believe.  Dani was probably the hottest guy on the ship and Mariana could easily be the most beautiful girl.  If anyone on the ship would be married to one of them, it would clearly be the other.
    Laurie nodded.  “I heard Mariana telling somebody that this is like their honeymoon or something.  She said they had to fax their marriage certificate the second they got it so that they’d be allowed to share a room.”
    “Wow.”  It sounded pretty cool, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to take classes on my honeymoon.
    We continued down the hall to our room.  Even though I had only slept there for a few nights before we arrived in Mexico, it already felt like home and it was nice to be back.  It wasn’t a very big room, but it was cozy.  We had a narrow alcove that separated our room from the door.  Just by standing in one spot and turning I could close our door, open the bathroom door, open the closet, and reach my hand into the bedroom.  Our beds were so close together that our nightstands were sandwiched between them, without enough room for even a pencil to roll off.  I could have reached out and touched Laurie’s bed from mine.  We each had a chair and a little desk at the foot of our beds.  Aside from some drawers built into the wall and a small TV, there was nothing else in our room.
    After brushing my teeth I climbed happily into bed.  It didn’t take long for the motion of the ship and hum of the engines to lull me to sleep.  All too soon my alarm was ringing for my morning class.  By the time I got out of the shower Laurie had returned from her daily trip up to the gym.  I stepped out of the bathroom and was dressed before I heard the shower turn on.  I smiled at how easily we got back into routine after five days in port.  I went up to breakfast and chose a random table.  A couple of girls I hadn’t met yet and a professor and her two little boys were sitting there.  We exchanged introductions and ate.
    I found Laurie after breakfast and we made our way to the huge room that served as the Latin American History classroom.  It was the first class of the day and was mandatory for everyone, even the faculty.  Across the room I spotted Charlie’s bright hair and noticed that he was sitting with Dani and Mariana.  After class I joined the shuffle of students heading to other classrooms.  My next class, Plant Use in Latin American Culture, was the one that Charlie was in too.
    “Hey, Jen!”  Carrie greeted me as we entered the classroom.  “The in-port project isn’t due today right?”
    “No, it’s due tomorrow,” Charlie answered.  He was sitting at the desk closest to the door.
    “What a relief!” Carrie said.  “I did that algae the Aztecs grew.  What about you guys?”
    “I wrote mine on tomatoes,” I said.
    “Chilies,” Charlie said.
    “Ugh!”  Carrie wrinkled her nose.  “I can’t stand spicy stuff.”
    “You won’t like me then,” Charlie said and winked at her.
    We laughed and took our seats across the room.
    “He’s cute, but he sets off my gaydar like whoa,” she whispered to me.
    “Mine too,” I giggled.
    After class ended I had half an hour to kill.  I swung by the dining room on Deck Five and grabbed a quick lunch.  Like my Plant Use class, my next class was uneventful.  When it was over I passed Dani in the hall on the way to Spanish for Travelers.
    “Hola,” Dani called as he passed me.  “Doin’ alright?”
    “I’m bueno,” I giggled to him.  He laughed and headed for the stairs.
    After Spanish I joined the throng of people gathered on Deck Seven.  I found a lounge chair and pulled it over to the rails so I could watch the water while I studied.
    The next day was pretty much the same, but it started raining early in the afternoon and  was a bad storm by the time I went to bed.  I woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled over to our bathroom, feeling awful.  A bit of quality time bent over the toilet didn’t help at all and I decided to try for some fresh air.  I pulled a sweater on over my pajamas, hung my ID card strap around my neck, and slipped out of the room.  I made my way down the corridor to the door that led outside.  For the first time since getting on the ship I had to keep one hand on the railing.  The halls were well lit, even though it was the middle of the night, and it was almost disconcerting to step outside into the darkness.  But the moment the cool, damp wind hit my face I felt better.  I hadn’t been seasick since our first night, but sometimes I felt nauseous if I stayed in our room too long.  Being out on the deck always helped.
    I had assumed that I’d be the only one crazy enough to go out in the rain in the middle of the night, but to my surprise I wasn’t.  There were people on the other side of the deck.  It was too dark to see them well, but the lights from the deck above us illuminated them a little.  One of them was Charlie.  He was standing under the overhang where Deck Five extended out above Deck Four.  He was just wearing a t-shirt and jeans and I shivered in sympathy.  A guy I recognized, not surprising since we all lived on a ship, was sitting on the bottom steps of the outdoor stairway that led to Deck Five.  He was probably a football player back home or something.  He had shaggy, dark brown hair and a fairly large nose.  I’d heard a few girls giggling about him, but I didn’t think he was that good looking.  I wasn’t sure what his name was.  Another guy was sitting in a chair, probably pilfered from Deck Five, with his back to me and his feet up on the rails.  Mariana was near him, wearing only a bikini top and a short skirt.  I couldn’t believe she wasn’t cold.
    “I didn’t scream!” she said.
    “You totally did!  You freaked out!” Dani laughed.
    It had been too dark to notice Dani until he spoke.  My jaw dropped in shock.  Dani was sitting on the railing of the ship.  Messing around on the rails was one of the first things they’d told us not to do when we got on board.  Even sitting on them in the middle of a calm day was suicidal at best.  But to sit there in the middle of a stormy night was nothing short of a death wish.
    “I was not!” Mariana cried.
    “You were all like, ‘Oh, Danio, save me Danio!'”
    “Well, I…I-don’t be such a jerk!”
    As Mariana spoke she spun to face Dani and shoved him hard.  Dani’s laugh turned into a yell of surprise and he tumbled backward off of the railing!  I gasped in horror.  Every second now was critical.  If someone went overboard we were supposed to immediately throw them a life preserver and then run and tell a crew member.  But not a single one of them did anything!  The one in the chair uncrossed his legs and recrossed them with a different one on top.  The guy on the stairs threw back his head and laughed!  Charlie quickly stuck his head over the railing and then pulled back and shivered.  It was as if Dani hadn’t gone overboard at all.
    “Oh my god!” I gasped.  They must have been in shock.  That was the only reason they weren’t rushing to save Dani.  I ran across the deck, at the very least, I could throw the life preserver in and hope he was still alive to use it.
    They all jerked around to look at me.  They acted more surprised to see me than they were about Dani falling overboard.  Mariana gasped and backed against the rail.  Charlie stepped to the edge of the overhang and Football Guy jumped off of the stairs to his feet.  The guy in the chair was on his feet in an instant.  I hardly even saw him move; one second he was sitting and the next he was up.  He stepped in front of the others, almost protectively.
    “That’s Jennifer.”  Charlie spoke softly like he didn’t want me to hear, but the wind carried his words right to me.  “She’s in one of my classes.”
    The guy in front smiled.  “You’re up late.”
    They were acting like nothing had happened!  This was insane!
    “What’s the matter with you?” I cried.  “We have to do something!”
    “Do something?”  He almost looked genuinely confused.  “About what?”
    “She just…” I gestured to Mariana.  “She just pushed Dani overboard!”
    He had the audacity to laugh.  “It’s raining, you know.  And dark.  You’re mistaken.”
    “Jeez, Mariana, if you wanted a divorce you should’ve just-”  My jaw dropped as Dani reappeared at the rail.  He caught sight of me and froze.
    My mind was reeling.  He was soaking wet, it was obvious it wasn’t just from the rain.  He’d fallen into water that had to be well over fifty feet below us.  We were really moving too; even an Olympic swimmer couldn’t have kept up with us.  Dani had fallen all the way down into the ocean and, not only had he not drowned, he’d gotten back on the ship.
    This was impossible.
    Dani vaulted easily over the railing and landed on the deck.  He walked quickly across the deck and stopped right behind the guy I’d been talking with.  Dani was quite a bit taller than him and leaned down to put his mouth near the guy’s ear.  “I think it would be better if I went in.  You got this?” he whispered.
    “Yeah.  Take Mariana with you.”  The wind was still in my favor and I could just make out what they were saying.
    Dani grabbed Mariana by the arm.  “Come on.”
    “Dani, I’m so sorry.”
    “It happens.  Let’s go.”
    Dani glanced at me as he and Mariana went inside.
    Football Guy edged toward the stairway he’d been sitting on.  “Right, I’ll call Jon.”
    The other one nodded.  “Wait,” he said when Football Guy was halfway up the stairs.  “It’s late, email him.  We can handle this until he gets it.”  Football Guy nodded and ran up the rest of the stairs to Deck Five and, probably, the computer lab.  Then the not-so-forthcoming one turned back to me.  “Jennifer, right?  I’m Thomas.  What brings you out on deck?”
    I glared.  “Dani just fell overboard and you’re going to stand there like nothing happened?”
    “Nothing did happen.”
    “Dani fell off the ship, into the ocean, and climbed back up again!  I saw it with my own eyes!”  He looked uncomfortable and I realized that he was trying to cover up what I had just witnessed.  “So don’t lie to me!  What just happened?”
    “Nothing,” Thomas said firmly.  “Forget about it.”
    “If nothing happened, then what is that guy going to email Jon about?”
    Thomas looked surprised for a second, then sighed.  “Alright, tell you what.  I’ll explain things after I hear back from Jon.”
    No way.  He was just stalling.  “Explain now,” I insisted.  He glared.  I got the feeling that if they were going to this much effort to cover things up then they clearly wouldn’t want me going around talking about it.  “Explain now, or I’m going to start asking around until I find someone who will.”
    “Go ahead,” Charlie snarled.  “Dani’s safe and dry by now.  You’ve got no proof and none of us are going to back up your story.”  As he spoke something weird happened.  His eyes, which were a very reddish-brown, seemed to change.  It must have been the rain or the lights or something, but bright reds and oranges flared in his eyes, almost like flames.
    “Char!” Thomas snapped.
    Charlie closed his mouth and took a step back.  He looked pissed, but Thomas had shut him up.
    “You’re just going to let him boss you around?” I asked incredulously.  Charlie stuck up his chin defiantly, but stayed quiet.
    Thomas stepped closer and more into the light, allowing me to finally get a good look at him.  He was a few inches taller than me and pretty thin.  The rain had plastered his bangs across his forehead and over one eye.  It struck me as a sort of emo haircut.  He looked fairly pale and I could see circles under his eyes like he didn’t sleep enough.  His cheeks were a bit hollow and he looked like he might have been a bit seasick.  He was wearing a retro looking band tee-shirt and I stifled a groan; he probably was one of those emo-kids.
    “If you want an explanation at all, you’ll wait until I hear back from Jon.  And in the meantime, you’ll keep quiet.”
    “Is that a threat?” I laughed.
    Thomas leaned forward and actually curled back his upper lip.  “Don’t.  Tell.  Anyone,” he snarled.  This time I didn’t feel like laughing.  For an instant my entire body froze and I almost couldn’t move.  This was absurd.  He was just some emo college guy acting tough, what did I have to be afraid of?
    I sucked in a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and glared at Thomas.  “Fine!  If you promise that you’ll explain everything after this Jon guy talks to you, then I won’t say anything.”
    He looked surprised.  More than surprised; he looked shocked.
    “Man, she’s got some spice,” Charlie said softly.  “I felt that from here.”
    “Deal,” Thomas said.  “We’ll talk tomorrow then.  Goodnight.”  With that he turned and swept across the deck and up the stairs in the direction football guy had gone.
    “Don’t say anything, Jennifer,” Charlie said.  “Please.”  He opened the door back inside and started in.  I followed.  Halfway down the corridor he turned and glared at me.  “Are you following me or something?” he snapped.  I saw the strange red flare in his eyes again.
    “My room is this way!”
    “Oh…” Charlie turned back and kept walking.
    He paused outside of Dani and Mariana’s room and knocked.  I knew that I’d make things worse if I stopped, so I kept going.  But I slowed down.  By the time I got to my room Dani’s door had opened.  I quickly opened mine and waited in the doorway.  I peered out around the doorjamb and yanked my head back as Dani’s appeared in his own.
    “You better have good news,” I heard Dani whisper to Charlie.  “Mariana is beside herself.”
    I heard the door close and then closed my own and leaned against it.  What on earth had I just witnessed?  I lay down and played it over and over again in my mind.  I was convinced that I had seen something very, very strange.  The fact they were all trying to cover up made it even more confusing.  When I finally fell asleep I still couldn’t for the life of me figure out what had happened.

Buy it now on Amazon

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑