Authors: Claire Vale
Published by Claire Vale
Copyright © 2013 by Claire Vale
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person.
All characters in this book are fiction and figments of the author’s imagination.
hasing after a boy never ends well, but this was a new low in the history of foolish ideas. In my defence, I hadn’t meant to tackle Christian Wood to the ground. I’d tripped on an exposed root and that’s why I was now sprawled over his lanky body with the breath knocked out of both of us.
“This isn’t funny, Willow.” His glare shot straight past me. “Get off.”
Not funny at all. I was sixteen, not six. Actually, I’d never wrestled anyone before, not even at the age of six. I guess I should have taken myself and my mortification and scooted all the way out of Biggs Hill Forest instead of just a little lower down his thighs. But I was having a bad day and I finally had Christian pinned to the spot.
“Why have you been avoiding me?” I folded my arms and frowned at him. “What is your problem?”
“I’m not the one with a problem.” He met my frown with a direct stare and mumbled, “And I always avoid you.”
He does? I hadn’t noticed.
Well, I hadn’t noticed until Mrs. B teamed us up to organise the Litter Bug Drive and Christian had suddenly become persona non-available. Even then, I’d assumed he was avoiding the job, not me.
“Tomorrow you’re going to help me canvas for helpers,” I told him firmly. “We need four teams to cover the hot spots.”
“We’re picking up rubbish,” groaned Chris, “not running for mayor.”
“After Saturday,” I finished waspishly, “you can go right back to avoiding me.”
I ignored the sarcasm.
I really was being the bigger person here. Before I released Chris, however, I had to know. It wasn’t as if I’d been in Biggs Hill long enough to forget any enemies I might have made along the way.
“So,” I said, “why the black plague drama?”
He gave me a ‘Huh?’ look.
“Why do you always avoid me?” I clarified.
“Maybe because of stuff like this?” he said, throwing his hands up.
Not fair. I wouldn’t have had to chase him down if he hadn’t been avoiding me. What came first? The chicken or the egg? The scary thing is, Chris probably knows the answer.
“Never mind,” I said, although I minded very much. Not that wearing the Biggs Hill Miss Personality crown (yes, every 1
of May, apparently, followed by a parade around The Green) was on my list of secret ambitions, but take a few seconds to get to know me!
I started to ease up.
Chris scrambled free a moment too soon, his knee knocking out my ankle before I was on my feet. A white flash of pain blinded me as lightening cracked all the way up to my kneecap. My foot shot out at an odd angle and I dropped flat over Chris like a maimed bunny.
And that’s how Jack Townsend found us.
“Get off my girl,” yelled Jack, stomping up to us. His dark glare was fixed on Chris. “How stupid are you?”
I took one look at Jack’s scowl and decided now was not the time point out who was on top of whom.
Jack’s eyes were almost as black as his hair, his square jaw locked down, the tendons at his neck pulled tight. The thunder cloud, always there, always lurking in the dark shadows of his face, had finally come out to play.
I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it.
Here’s the thing: on a good day, Jack Townsend is tall, dark and dangerous. I’d taken one look at Jack (my first day at Napton College about three months ago) and decided his soul matched my black mood.
We’ve been an item ever since.
Right now, Jack was tall, dark and bad. And I was wondering just what exactly he’d found so attractive about me on first sight. Had he taken his own sneak preview into my soul and seen the black rot had spread to my core?
Because here’s another thing: Jack is so not my type. Which is fine, since I haven’t felt much like myself lately. Not since my mother removed us from London to the equivalent of Hicksville, minus my dad.
Tall, dark and dangerous was supposed to be my little show of sullen defiance and mutiny. Tall, dark and bad meant I was in way over my head.
Jack grabbed me by the waist and lifted me high, my feet dangling uselessly while he took a long moment to give Chris the glare of death. “If you laid one finger on her...” Jack let the threat linger menacingly as he lowered me to his side. His voice softened when he looked my way. “You okay?”
I nodded, sucking in a deep breath.
Some of my grim foreboding seeped away as I looked into his eyes. As usual, I almost got lost there, but managed to pull myself out somewhere between the memory of our last kiss and the tingling fantasy of our next. I needed to come up with a story. Something that cleared Chris without turning me into Crazy Girl who’d locked onto him like a heat missile and run him, quite literally, to ground. A fact I was starting to feel a little ashamed of.
Jack was too quick. His fingers twining in mine, he pulled me with him as he spun about and took off across the clearing.
“Ouch,” I winced as the first jolt shot up my calf. And “Ouch,” again before Jack came to an abrupt halt.
I groaned unthinkingly, reaching down to massage the throb that was my ankle.
“I’ll kill him!” roared Jack, slipping his hand from mine as he spun about to face off Chris. From behind, I saw him push up the sleeves of his school shirt and blazer. “You are so dead.”
“Jack! No!” My heart stopped mid-beat. But no, of course he wouldn’t. Not really. “Chris didn’t do anything.”
Jack wasn’t listening. He was too busy advancing on Chris with what might, I couldn’t fully discount, be lethal intent. “I warned you to stay away from me.”
I hobbled after, willing Chris to jump to his feet and make like the wind. He was a straight A student after all, but apparently he didn’t know better.
“Get over it,” said Chris, keeping a wary eye on Jack as he slowly picked himself up. “I bleeding well tried, okay?”
“You’re so stinking clever,” snarled Jack, “did you not know that included my girl?”
Chris plunged a hand through his short blonde hair. “I didn’t touch Willow.”
“You saying I’m blind now? Imagining things? Or maybe I got it all wrong, again. Poor Jack, poor sod hasn’t got a clue, eh?”
Chris’s arms hung limp as he stared at Jack.
When my hobble finally brought me level with them, I saw Jack’s fists were up and his face was red. Chris’s pallor, understandably, had turned the same grey as his eyes. I didn’t blame him one bit. Chris might be slightly taller, but Jack doubled him in solid muscle.
I tugged on the back of Jack’s blazer. “This is ridiculous. Chris isn’t going to fight you. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“Go on, Willow,” Jack said evenly, keeping his eyes on Chris. “I’ll meet up with you at Café Moccha.”
I looked at Chris. He really should have run. Why could guys never just do the logical thing? I shook my head in frustration and tried again. “Chris and I were just talking.”
Which didn’t explain the compromising position.
“I stumbled on one of these stupid roots,” I went on, glancing about wildly for the evidence. There weren’t any obvious above-ground roots that I could see, but Jack wasn’t looking anyway. “And I sorta fell on top of Chris,” I finished lamely.
“Go defend someone else, Willow,” Chris said is a tight voice.
Now that just lit a skyrocket under my resentment. An astounding leap placed me squarely between Jack’s fists and Chris’s ashen face. The throb at my ankle made its way to my temples.
I crossed my arms and glowered at Chris. “Unless you can stuff some of that ego up your shirt and magic it into muscle, lose it. I’m trying to save you a couple of broken bones here.”
His grey eyes widened on me. “Will you go away?”
“You heard him,” said Jack. “Please leave, Willow.”
I turned my glower on Jack and swallowed uncomfortably. His stare was black ice, in the shape of a stalactite aimed at Chris.
Somehow I’d made everything much worse.
“This isn’t your fight,” Chris told me as he stripped his blazer and tossed it on the ground.
But it was my fight.
Any idiot could see that.
I was about to tell Chris exactly that, when he pushed up his sleeves and curled his fists up near his chest.
I had to blink twice before I could believe what I was seeing.
Not that Chris and I are best mates or anything, you understand, but you can’t attend Napton College and not know a few intrinsic details about Christian Wood.
He’s the one with a library tucked under his arm, the boy who thinks physics is English and flirting is Greek.
He doesn’t simply head the Math club, he instituted it. Boys like Chris just don’t go around eye-grilling other boys, fists at the ready for a candy-fest of pubescent testosterone.
“No,” I said, because this was all so terribly wrong. “No, I’m not going anywhere.”
My arms unfolded. I dropped my hands to my hips as I turned my back on Chris and limped the short distance to stand nose to nose with Jack. “You can’t fight him, Jack. I’m not going to let you do this.”
“You can’t stop me,” Jack said through gritted teeth. He lowered his fists, but only to set me out his way.
I grabbed his arm with both hands, contemplated dragging him out of the woods, but whom was I kidding? Leaning in, I spoke into his ear, firmly and softly, “If you lay into Chris, you and me are history. Understand, Jack?”
I released his arm and pulled away, feeling a little shaky. Sure, desperate measures were called for, but using this particular card was never going to be a good thing, whichever way it played out.
Jack spared me a brief look. So brief, the regret lurking in his dark eyes didn’t register until after he’d returned his full attention to Chris.
His fists came up again. Legs wide apart for balance, Jack rocked on the balls of his feet. Once. Twice.
I held my breath.
“Sorry, Willow.” He slid me another glance. “This has nothing to do with us.”
My world grew very small in that moment. So small, I could distinctly hear each particle of dirt crush beneath his boot as Jack took that first step toward Chris.
A sharp wedge stuck in my ribs. My stinging pride, I imagined. I hoped. My heart felt unaccountably heavy and dislodged. Probably lying in the dirt somewhere, along with my trampled ultimatum.
The only thing that made sense was for me to scoop up my pride and run for the hill that gave Biggs Hill its name. And maybe I would have. If I’d had two good legs. If just then, Jeremy and Sydney hadn’t come crashing through into the clearing. Jack’s noxious friends could smell a fight brewing a mile away.
“What’s this, eh?” sniggered Sydney. His thick nose scrunched to meet pale blue eyes drawn to slits in his face.
Where Sydney was wide, short and about as threatening as the brown-haired pug he resembled, Jeremy was tall and built, his face gaunt and hard.
“Have your toads come to watch,” taunted Chris, “or help?”
Self-pity gave way to healthy rage at Chris. Honestly, no one is that stupid.
“Oi! Who you’re calling a toad!” roared Jeremy, closing in on Jack’s left.
I backed away. Partly to get away from Jeremy. Mostly to get close to Chris.
My fingers wrapped around Chris’s arm. “If you have a death wish,” I hissed, “you might have mentioned it before I trashed my pride and dignity on your behalf.”
“Take your hands off her,” yelled Jack.
“I never asked for your help,” Chris reminded me crossly, trying to twist his arm free. At Jack, he simply shook his head. There might have been a low growl as well.
“Trying to break my wrist as well now?” I said. Unfair, but one of us needed a tactic that wouldn’t end in crushed ribs and false teeth.
His arm went slack.
I held on, dithering between decoy and human shield. I was 99½ percent sure Jack wouldn’t (a) hurt me or (b) let Jeremy hurt me.
And that’s when everything went Alice in Wonderland, rabbit-in-a-top-hat nutters.
Sunlight glinted off steel as Jeremy suddenly had a blade in his hand. Jack’s arm lashed out, striking Jeremy
Or he might have said, “Givvit here, Jer,” because next thing the two of them were barrelling towards us and Jack was the one holding the blade.
Down my side of Alice’s hole, that ½ percent grew to an odd I had no hope of beating.
“Run!” I screamed at Chris, jerking around into a sprint.
My gammy ankle collapsed immediately and Chris came down on top of me with a grunt, squashing the air from my lungs. It didn’t matter. I had enough adrenaline spurting through my muscles to drag us both all the way back to London—with zero lung capacity if need be. Nothing and no one was getting in my way.
I hadn’t counted on the strange man with the silver-grey eyes.
He totally came out of nowhere. One second there was nothing but mushy leaves between me and the nearest bush, and the next there was that pair of eyes set in a brittle expression.