I hate introductions. I hate schmoozing. There’s nothing more awkward than having to be fake and friendly to new people.
Waltzing hand in hand with Kara, I enter the cafeteria in search of her clique of alleged friends—all of whom I’ve never met before. I tried to put off the greeting for as long as possible but I only made it an hour before Kara dragged me down here from our shared dorm room in Aphro Hall.
I have to admit; when I first saw Kara I was in awe. She’s small, bubbly and blonde and I’m all…not. She had on this outrageous outfit, cowboy boots and all, and although it’s January, she chose to wear summer clothes and call it a day.
Her side of the room is like a Barbie’s dollhouse—only in real life. It’s completely pink with fluffy pillows and even smells flowery. My side is a stark contrast but I plan to change that soon. I did only move in today.
Kara squeezes my hand and brings me back to the current moment. I’m drained from moving into DGA, Demi God Academy, just this morning and the last thing on my mind is making friends when I so clearly don’t fit in.
Glancing around the room, it’s clear this place is for elite, gorgeous looking gods. Everyone is primped to perfection with flawless skin and silky, smooth hair. Meanwhile, I’m sweaty from hefting boxes and nervously biting my bottom lip with anxiety from being in this new situation.
The sea of people in front of me highly intimidates me. I thought I would be able remain invisible until classes start tomorrow morning but now upon entering the room, all eyes turn towards me, scrutinizing my every move. Their searing stares inspect me, traveling up and down my average looking body. I use my arms to cover myself, crossing them over my average chest—not liking the way their eyes linger for far too long.
“Can’t we do this tomorrow?” I turn towards Kara, pleading with her. I hardly know her but immediately I liked her. We may be opposites, but even so, she has this tender, genuine charm that makes me feel like I can trust her.
“Come on, they’re going to love you!” she squeals, linking arms with me as she pulls me towards a table of kids I’m assuming are her friends.
When we step up to the table, all of the sitting students smile up at Kara, welcoming her, before turning their watching eyes to me. An awkward second passes by as Kara just smiles, saying her hellos while I stand next to her looking like a social outcast.
“This is my roomy guys! Ryder,” she introduces me, and I grin, wanting to keep this short but Kara pushes my back with her hand so I stumble forward towards the table. I trip over my feet but try to play it off.
“Hey,” I mutter far too quietly—the kids at the end of the table probably don’t even hear me. My hand waves involuntarily making me look like a freaking idiot. I quickly shove my hand down, hiding it behind my back before I do something stupid like give them all handshakes or a lame thumbs up.
They go around the table clockwise, each saying their names, but I’m so nervous that I don’t remember a single one. My brain is on over drive, and all I can think of is making sure I don’t barf or screw up my first impressions. Kara excuses us after they’re all introduced and leads me towards the food area, waving behind her effortlessly like the little social butterfly she is.
“Relax, girl.” She tries to reassure me but it hardly works. “They’re not all judgey.”
As we near the food lines towards the back of the cafeteria, I catch sight of my dark haired knight standing in the center aisle of the room with a crowd of students circling him. My heart pitter patters and I mentally explode with him being so close.
I haven’t seen Ari since before Christmas and even then, our only form of communication was via texting. Actually, both boys have avoided me like the plague recently so when I see Ari standing there in all his godly glory, I almost hyperventilate.
As we take long strides towards him I only allow myself a quick glance up and down his frame so nobody will acknowledge me. His hair is cut shorter than I’ve ever seen it, but at the same time it looks longer on top. I can’t tell what’s different but it looks really good with his bright eyes. The sides are no longer over his ears and it makes him look much older—maybe late twenties or even early thirties.
I stop dead in my tracks, not wanting him to spot me—or anyone else for that matter. I don’t think I’m mentally prepared for this meeting and need to avoid it at all costs.
Kara walks a few more steps alone before she notes that I’ve stopped moving. Turning around, she storms over to me with questioning eyes.
“What’s the deal?” I figure now is as good a time as any to explain to her at least part of the story of my dreaded, miserable life.
“I kind of know that guy over there.” I point to where Ari stands among the students.
“Which one?” she questions me back, squinting towards them, hungrily trying to pick out which kid it is.
“The guy with black hair.” I point directly at Ari but drop my hand fast so nobody else notices. I can’t have people accusing me of being a stalker on day one. I know how fast rumors can fly and the impact they have on someone’s reputation.
“Professor A?” She asks me in disbelief. Her perfectly shaped eye brows pinch together in an unattractive way, and she scrutinizes me like she’s forming a new opinion.
“Uh, yeah,” I mutter, my cheeks heating up like a thermometer over a fire.
“I think you’re going to have to back up here. How do you even know him?” She looks around the room, grabs my arm, and pulls me down to sit next to her at an empty table. We’re hidden behind a stone pillar from prying eyes and I feel myself relax just a notch.
“Well, I kind of dated him but not really.” She gives me a dismal look, thinking he’s my ex or something so I have to clear it up—I don’t need pity from anyone, especially a near perfect stranger. “We met at my old school before I know about gods and all of this,” I say, gesturing around the building full of gods but she holds up her hand, shushing me.
“You lost me here. He’s your ex?” she clarifies, frowning over at me.
“Basically.” I leave it at that. Meanwhile my brain is running, thinking of fast forwarding to a time when Ari and I can actually be together or even rewind a few months, whichever is possible. I let my mental tirade flash with images of Ari on the beach, in the Underworld and anywhere else I can have him.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.” She breaks my thoughts with her light voice. “We are going to walk to the food, you’re going to say ‘hi’ and then walk away.” I start to object but she glowers at me, a silencing glare. “You look happy and he needs to see it,” she continues. She reaches her hand up and tucks a strand of hair.
“Perfect,” she mutters and then stands in front of me admiring her work. I look up at her skeptically, but she brushes it off and reaches down for my hand, not paying me any attention. I pause, debating what to do but she’s my roommate, and I really need to work on my trust issues.
Interlocking her fingers with mine, she walks with a purpose, dragging me along behind her. She shakes her hips, making a point to sway while I try to mimic her flirty waltz. She shoots me a wink before focusing on her mission.
A surge of adrenaline rushes through me, pushing me forward towards Ari with a confidence that is definitely not my own. I clench Kara’s hand as a last life line to save me. Kara pauses in the aisle, and I do the same when we are close enough to Ari.
“Wait for it,” she says, staring daggers into Ari’s back like she’s casting a spell. I wait for him to feel me, hoping I get a good reaction but knowing it’s not likely given our latest circumstances. It doesn’t take him long before he glances up, his eyes locking onto mine with surprise almost instantly.
Kara tugs me along by our joined hands towards him, and I plaster an overzealous smile on my face. “H-hey,” I stutter, doing the stupid wave again. I’m acting like I’ve never met the guy before and am star struck. I blush, averting my eyes towards the floor, wanting to bury my head under it and cry with embarrassment.
“Excuse me,” Ari says to the group of guys surrounding him. They all scatter their separate ways, and he finally comes over to us. He stops in front of me when just a foot of empty space separates us. “How are you ladies?” he asks to both of us, acting completely formal and nothing like the Ari I know—or rather knew.
“Good!” Kara squeaks out, very excited to speak with Ari. I frown in her direction, wondering why she’s so damn excited. She seems so calm and collected but then in Ari’s presence, she turns into a giggly school girl. I say the same—just with less enthusiasm.
“Can I see you for a second?” Ari’s eyes never leave mine as they burn with such intensity that a hum of heat runs through me like a lightning bolt of love. His green eyes pierce mine just like they used to, and it sends familiar chords strumming through my heart.
“Sure,” I say, unsure of what he’s going to tell me. I let go of Kara’s hand and walk alongside Ari as he leads me past the food area and out a large set of wooden doors to a fairytale courtyard.
Ari takes a seat on a beautiful wood bench, in between two large bushes that are covered in ice and snow. I bend down, touching the frozen leaves before sitting next to him on the double-seater. I glance around the courtyard wishing there was some flowers to look at so I don’t have to stare at Ari. I try to avoid eye contact because it makes me crave things that I know I can’t have anymore.
“So…” he pauses, “are you okay?” The question takes me by surprise, because over the last few months, nobody has really cared if I was okay or not. With my best friend Junior picking sides, it’s been more than awkward between us.
Then with Ari and Ollie both declaring that they hate me and never want to be with me, I kind of just became a hermit and spent time at home with my dad.
“Um. Yeah, I guess.” I’m not sure what aspect of my life he’s referring to, but I can guess pretty damn well it’s not my love life. He knows how shitty that is.
“I’m sorry for everything.” He gets out the words fast in one single breath. “I just couldn’t be your friend when I care about you so much. It was impossible to even be in the same class as you when all I wanted was to kiss you and make you mine. Can you forgive me?” His jade eyes turn up and meet mine with question.
“I just don’t get it. You wouldn’t explain the pact you made or why you had to listen to him. You both broke my heart, at the same time. I just don’t get it,” I say again, wishing that someone would finally explain why they can’t be with me. I get that it’s because of the curse, but at the same time, I don’t.
“Everything’s changed. You have to choose one of us and if we were both vying for your attention, you’d hate us both for being so catty and manipulative. We thought if we stayed away you could think clearer and make a sound decision.” He runs his hand through his hair, the black tendrils flipping towards his forehead. While the sides of his hair have been trimmed, the front is still long and dips dangerously low to his eye line. His green eyes offset his near black hair, and it gives him an exotic look. My brain trails off as I imagine my own hand diving in for a turn.
“I just wish it was different,” I say, more for myself than for him.
“Me too, Eury.” He reaches towards me and rests his hand on my knee. He traces small circles over the bone, sending currents of lust through my body in gentle ripples. His hum of intensity rushes inside of me, and I do nothing to stop it. To be honest, I’ve missed the hum and am glad it’s back to bring me back to life.
“Can we be together now?” I ask him, looking up at him for an answer. I know before he even utters a word that it isn’t good news—his somber eyes a dead giveaway. They always did say what his mouth wouldn’t.
“For once, I agree with Ollie. You need to choose,” he says, crushing any hope of us being together. “But we can’t avoid each other or act like we hate each other so I want to try out that friendship thing you were talking about,” he adds, almost as if he doesn’t understand the word friendship.
“I’ll take what I can get,” I say, upset that I can’t kiss him but glad that I at least get to have him in my life. I lean against him on the bench so our shoulders touch and wrap my arms around his neck in a long overdue embrace. “Thanks,” I whisper into his ear, clutching him tighter as if it’s the last hug I will ever get—and at this point, I really don’t know. It may be.
“Let me get you back to your friends.” As he gets up, our hands brush briefly before Ari flinches away like I have some sort of disease. I ignore his reaction, not wanting to upset myself before I go back to my new life I’m being pushed into. “They’re being nice to you, right?” He looks back at me, concerned.
“I barely even know them,” I mutter, wanting to get this dinner over with so I can relax in the confines of my own room. Although as soon as I think it, I doubt Kara will ever be quiet long enough that I can relax.
“You’ll tell me if you have any trouble, right?” He blocks the door to get inside so I have to answer him before I can leave. I scowl at him before answering, hating how patronizing he’s being.
“Yes, Ari,” I groan, pushing past him and finding my way back inside to where Kara is sitting with her friends. She sees me walk in and rushes over to my side, concern in her eyes.