Swimming had made me feel free and alive when I was a little girl dreaming of being a mermaid. It had given me a purpose during high school when I needed something to keep me grounded and focused on my future. Now, the water was my cocoon, my sanctuary. And when I dove in, I always had hope that I’d resurface cleansed with all of my shame washed away. Like a baptism, the water would make me anew, and I could move on with my life and put the past behind me like it never happened.
But as soon as my feet were on the solid tile, standing in a puddle of hope that had long been washed away, the raw gripping reality of what had been done to me would slap me in the chest so hard, I’d lose my breath.
“Great work today, Clara. Your average time is the best in class. Way to swim.” Coach Jones’s voice was encouraging, but the slap on the back had me cringing.
It was no fault of his own. He meant well and, in many ways, reminded me of my own father, who had encouraged me through the years before I had a coach. I knew he really cared about me, but I couldn’t handle contact—not from anyone.
Even if I was a nervous wreck and living life like a complete basket case, at least my love of swimming hadn’t been taken away from me. There were many days when I felt it was all I had left. The normalcy of it would last only so long, and then I was back to looking over my shoulder and keeping my head down.
“Thanks, Coach. I’ve been trying.” I’d pushed and pushed, doing laps every night I could along with sprints to push my time.
“It shows. You’ve improved a lot over the last few weeks. You know, you should go out and celebrate. Best to get that out of your system early with the swim meet coming up next weekend.” He gave me a wink and hugged his clipboard close.
“Thanks. I might do that. See you later.” I gave him a wave goodbye and headed to the back where the showers were. I liked my privacy as much as anyone else, so I was hoping I could get the task done before anyone came in. Luckily, no one did.
Once I was done, I quickly dressed and brushed my hair back to let it dry straight, so I didn’t need a mirror’s assistance. Then I headed out.
I stopped at the door to dig my keys from my bag and went down the long hall to the exit. I opened the door and glanced around, making sure there wasn’t anyone out of place or looking to mug me. When I was finally comfortable enough, I continued and stepped around the corner to where my car was parked.
My heart leaped into my throat as Dillon Coleman bumped right into me, nearly knocking me down to the sidewalk. I prepared myself for an attack, causing him to take a step back.
“I’m so sorry, Clara.” He put his hands up as if to defend himself and looked at mine, which were pulled back, the keys fisted between the fingers of my right hand to cause the optimal damage to any attacker.
It was something I’d learned to do from the internet, and I was prepared to strike for the eyes. I’d learned my lesson about trusting others, and now I trusted no one.
“Yikes,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of that fist.”
I dropped my hand and tried to calm my nerves with a few deep breaths. “You scared me. Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
I looked up into his big brown eyes and wondered how anyone could be scared of Dillon with those sexy eyes, but I knew the prettiest of men could be devils—or inconsiderate assholes, like Dillon had proven to be. I lowered my chin and stepped around him.
“I was looking down at my phone for a second. Guess I shouldn’t text and walk.” He laughed at his little joke and called to me. “Hey, wait.”
I heard him fall in behind me and my back stiffened. I glanced over my shoulder, wishing he’d just go away so I could go home and study. I had a ton of work to do, thanks to him. “What do you want?”
As if he hadn’t done enough damage and proven he wasn’t someone who could be counted on.
“Damn, girl. You have a temper, don’t you? I just wanted to say I might need tutoring if you’re available. Who knows? It might be fun. We weren’t that terrible of a team, right?” He gave me a chuckle that told me just how serious he was.
I wasn’t in the mood to make jokes. I had partnered with him in English, and he’d pulled a stunt that failed us both.
I huffed as he came around me, giving me his big dopey grin. “Fat chance, jackass. I helped you last semester, and you dropped the ball. Now I have to work extra hard to get my grades back up on top of everything else I have going on in my life.”
He took a step back, and his mouth popped open as if he were shocked by my words. “That’s a real naughty mouth you got there.” He leaned in close, and I went to step back, not knowing the building was still so close. I was trapped.
My heart started to race, not because I was terrified of the tall handsome guy in front of me but because I wanted him to kiss me. I stiffened, clutching my bag, bracing for anything.
The truth was, if he kissed me, I’d probably melt into him. I knew I would, and the reaction would make me weak. I wasn’t weak. I’d never be the weak, naïve, little freshman who let herself be taken advantage of again.
He took notice of my reaction, his eyes trailing down to my hands, which not only still had my keys fisted tightly but the strap of my bag as well. “It’s not nice to call people names. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?”
His bemused grin made me want to slap his face. He brought up way too many feelings in me to focus on anything else in his presence, and he wasn’t worth the trouble.
I lifted my chin to look down my nose. “It’s also not nice to corner people or to drop their grade-point average because you have better things to do.” I hadn’t ever gotten an excuse from him about where he was when he failed to show up the day our project was due. I was sure it was some kind of Omega-house bullshit which was why I knew better than to let my attraction for him cause me to stumble. I had to focus. I had to keep my guard up at all times if I was going to make it. I had let his charms be a stumbling block once already. Never again.
He raked his hand through his hair and looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Hey, I said I was sorry. How long are you going to hold a grudge, little miss perfect?”
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t the one going around throwing myself at people and drinking like every day was a party like some of the students. I had kept to myself and didn’t bother anybody, but somehow, I was always sneered at and looked down on. All I wanted was to be left alone.
“You heard me, ice princess. I guess it’s okay for you to call people assholes, but you think you’re too good for a little teasing? You know, despite my not showing up and fucking things up last semester, I thought we were really getting along.”
“Me too, and then you brushed off our project like it was nothing. I didn’t even mind that I’d done most of the work, but sadly, Professor Myers didn’t give a shit. She failed us both. All of that hard work was down the drain, and you didn’t even care. So yeah, kiss my ass.”
“Anything else?” He folded his arms and gave me a hard stare.
“Yeah, I want to know what was so important that you just forgot to show up for class on the most important day of your junior year.” I looked him in the eyes, leaning forward as if I were towering above him, but he didn’t back down either.
“A friend needed me.” He shrugged it off like it was no big deal.
“Friend? Ha! Is that what you call all your women?” I rolled my eyes. He was just like the other Omegas. They were all the same.
“Jealous?” He raised his brows and smirked as if trying to lighten the tension a bit.
His brows wagged a little at my response, but then he lifted his chin and shrugged. “No, my friend, Will. He needed me, and I was there for him, but you wouldn’t understand friends, right? I hear you’ve run off everyone but a few you’ve chosen worthy.”
“And you still don’t get it. I thought I was your friend, too. I needed you, and you weren’t there. You didn’t even call or try to ask the professor for an extension. I guess I’m not the only one who chooses who they deem worthy.” I pushed past him and headed for my car, which was just a few steps away, and he stared me down until I left the parking lot.
My last view of him in my rear-view mirror was him shaking his head and turning to walk inside.
I’d had enough of people like him to last a lifetime. I was a survivor, and I had dreams. I also knew that if I wanted those dreams to be a reality, I was going to have to focus and work hard.
I’d come to college wanting to have the college experience, but that had proven too dangerous, and I’d gotten a big, ugly taste of what it was all about. It wasn’t the life for me, or at least the lifestyle, so while the others were out partying and getting drunk and out of control, I kept to myself. It was a lonely life, but it was the only life. I tried hard to be social with a few of the girls, but even they weren’t safe.
I pulled up to my apartment and found someone was in my parking space yet again. I only hoped it wasn’t one of my sister’s friends and especially not some guy she’d brought home to hole up in bed with.
I’d seen her gawking at Seth Mills but wished that when she did find someone, he would be better than the meathead whose only interest was sex and rebounding after his ex, Layla Roberts, finally hooked up with Jayce Moore. She was much better off with Jayce and seemed happy enough. I wasn’t the best of friends with Layla or anything, but she was one of the only girls, aside from Natasha Kelly, that I could somewhat give that title to.
I pulled into another spot that was reserved for guests, which meant I had to walk a little farther. I got my keys in place and took a deep breath as I stepped out of the car and hustled upstairs.
I wasn’t lucky enough to have a downstairs apartment, but I knew I shouldn’t complain since my parents, mostly my father, had been good enough to find my sister Avery and me a place close to campus on their dime. At least it was a two bedroom, which was better than what I had at home.
Avery and I had shared a room since we were kids. It wasn’t because we didn’t have another room but because we’d decided when we were twelve that we’d have one room for sleeping and another for hanging out with our friends.
Our house was the neighborhood hangout all through middle and high school, but things had changed drastically when we’d moved away from there. Mom and Dad had given us rules to follow, and though we were allowed to have friends over, it couldn’t be party central. That was one of the only things they’d agreed on since their divorce.
That was fine with me. It wasn’t like I’d brought my friends to college with me, not that we were a wild bunch anyway, and I’d had a hard time making friends. My sister said I’d changed, and in a manner of speaking, I had, though not in the way she thought, which was turning into a nerd who only liked to study.
Sure, I wanted good grades, and that was why I worked so hard, but most of my issues weren’t because I thought I was too good to have friends.
The truth was, nothing had been the same with me since my freshman year. Not since the night I’d gone to Omega house with my new friends, and everything changed with one drink.