LOVE IS A JOURNEY…NOT A DESTINATION.
“It’s still secret, right? No one’s found out?”
I rolled my eyes, even though Mom couldn’t see me. Every single phone call either started or ended with these questions, and it was getting old.
“I’m not an idiot. I haven’t told anyone, and I won’t. You’ve adequately drilled that into my head.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Delia. You’ve no idea how scared I—” Her voice cracked, and guilt swamped me.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “But nothing’s going to happen, okay? No one knows anything about me.”
“But if you let it slip to one of your friends or if you lose control… Honey, maybe you should just come back home. You wouldn’t have to worry here about anyone finding out about your—” She sighed heavily. “About you.”
I shook my head and ignored the tightening of my throat. She couldn’t even bring herself to say the word. That was nothing new, though. She hated this part of me. Not the way others hated it or feared it—nothing like that. She loved me more than anyone, of course, but having this inside me put me at risk, and what mother wouldn’t loathe that?
“Mom, I want to help people, people like me, and I can’t do that there.”
“But you’d be safe!”
I closed my eyes against the sudden burning. I didn’t like that she worried, that I was the cause of so much fear and stress and had been my entire life. Sometimes, I wished I could do what she wanted—go home, live on the farm, safe and sound—but coming here was the first step in fulfilling my dreams. The first step in doing what I’ve always wanted to do.
“I’m safe here,” I assured her. “You’re forgetting there are laws to protect me, that it’s illegal to discriminate against me just because I have—”
“You’re forgetting just how little those legal protections mean,” she shouted loudly enough I had to pull the phone from my ear. “They didn’t help your father; they don’t help anyone. If anyone finds out, you’ll be put on a watch list—the lists that aren’t even supposed to exist but do—and you will never have a moment’s peace. You’ll never be safe; always having to look over your shoulder.”
“No one knows,” I said in a rush, anxious to cut off the rant before it really began. “And no one will ever know. Dad taught me well, Mom. You know that. I’m just another student here, one of thousands. Nobody cares about me, and I’m not drawing attention to myself.”
A heavy sigh traveled through the phone. “Promise me you’ll be careful. Promise you’ll come home if there’s even a hint that someone knows or suspects.”
“Promise,” I said softly, as I always did.
I wished she’d ask me about my classes, about the people I was meeting, the things I was doing, but it was only the questions and the promises—every time. A part of me understood why—truly I did—but another part wanted her to be interested in my life. In me…beyond that one part. I glanced at my watch and stood from where I sat on my bed.
“I’ve got to go. I have class in a few minutes, and it’s across campus, so I need to hurry.” Grabbing my bag, I hoisted it over my shoulder. “I’ll call you over the weekend?”
“All right. Call sooner if you need anything.” She paused, and I could tell she wanted to say more, to keep warning me, but instead, she simply said, “I love you, Delia.”
“Love you, too, Mom.”
I ended the call and shoved the phone in my pocket as I left my room. I hurried out of the building and started the trek across campus.
“Delia!” Peyton Harding—a girl from my dorm—jogged up and fell into step beside me. “Study group around four. You coming?”
“John wants it to be out here.” Peyton rolled her eyes as she gestured around the quad. “Everyone’s pretty much agreed to it. Figured we might as well while it’s still nice enough to, because before too long, we’ll be stuck inside.”
“All right. My class goes until three-fifty, so I’ll meet you here. Who else is—oof.”
“Oh shit, sorry! Wasn’t looking were I was going. Are you okay?” A strong hand wrapped around my arm above my elbow, steadying me.
I looked up and found myself staring into the clearest, greenest eyes I’d ever seen. I’d call them pretty if it wasn’t for the whole picture they were a part of. Messy brown mop of curls, high cheekbones, full lips that were turned down into a frown. No, pretty wasn’t the word I was thinking. Hot, sexy, breathtaking—those all fit.
“You okay?” he repeated.
Great, I was gaping at him like an idiot. I nodded and smiled. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. No worries.”
His frown transformed into a wide, bright grin, and there was the breathtaking. Damn.
“I’m glad.” He tilted his head and ran his gaze over me. “I haven’t seen you around. First year?”
I nodded, acutely aware of the warm weight of his hand still on my arm. Everything in me responded to his touch, and I breathed through it—the trembling, the heat swirling through my body, threatening to radiate outward—desperate to keep that reaction concealed, hoping he’d see nothing more than a shy girl gobsmacked in the presence of a hot guy. Which I was, but it was only a fraction of the story.
His fingers flexed, and he continued to smile at me. “I’m Maddock.”
“Delia,” I forced through numb lips.
“That fits—beautiful girl, beautiful name.”
Some shouting had him glancing over his shoulder. Relief and sadness warred within me when he let me go to wave at whoever had been trying to get his attention. I inhaled deeply and felt myself calm slightly. Until he faced me again, eyes crinkling as he smiled. Damn, that was cute.
“I have to go.” He actually sounded as if he regretted it. “I’d like to see you again, Delia. Come to the rally this afternoon.” He pressed a piece of paper into my hand, holding it firmly against my palm a moment. “Look for me after? Maybe we can get some coffee and get to know each other better.”
“I-I’d like that.”
He released my hand then, after a quick nod in Peyton’s direction and another flashing smile in mine, he walked away. I watched him go—I was only human, and he wore those jeans oh so well—until I was jolted from my thoughts by a rough nudge on my arm.
“Wow,” Peyton drawled, linking arms with me. “Hot, majorly hunky Maddock Roberts just asked you out.”
I snorted, eyes still on where he now stood talking with a group of people. “Not exactly.”
“Meeting for coffee after his rally? That’s a date, my friend.”
No, it was— Oh God…was it? My stomach fluttered. I looked down at the paper in my trembling hand, and the flutters morphed into full on spasms, driving out the nervous excitement. Bile threatened to choke me as I read the bold print across the top—Protect Our Students. Ban Magic Users From Campus!
“Hey, something wrong?” Peyton asked.
I crumpled the flyer and chucked it into a nearby trashcan, ignoring the flare of prickling heat inside me.
“No,” I croaked. “Just don’t want to be late for class. The prof’s a real stickler about being on time and all that.”
I pulled away from her and set a quick pace towards my destination.
“Delia, wait! What’s the matter?”
“Nothing! Promise. See you at study group!”
When I turned to smile and wave at her—because I didn’t need anyone to be suspicious of anything; I needed to be normal—I saw Maddock Roberts a few feet from her, frowning fiercely at me.
* * * *
I was late for class, anyway. But it was all good, because I’d lied—the professor didn’t give a shit. I’d had to duck into one of the bathrooms, lock myself into a stall and calm down. Showing up to class with my magic going crazy, my hair practically standing on end and energy flowing off me in waves, wasn’t the way to stay unnoticed.
My mother would flip a nut if she knew I’d nearly lost control. In a very public place, no less. Over a boy. An absolutely gorgeous boy, yes, but a boy just the same. Stupid, stupid Delia.
I reined it in, though, and made it through class without blowing anything up, so win for me. Wouldn’t be so much of a win if anyone asked me what the actual lecture was about as my mind had been thoroughly occupied by a cute guy who apparently hated what I was and, if he knew the truth, would probably rather see me dead than date me.
Such was my life.
Now, as I entered the quad, the first thing I noticed was the huge crowd of people occupying the center of the large space. Shit, the rally. I stopped abruptly, got jostled as people pushed past me to join the group. And in the middle of it all was none other than Maddock Roberts, standing on the platform of one of the hideous abstract sculptures scattered throughout campus. He was speaking, loudly, but I was too far away to hear anything clearly. I couldn’t pull my gaze away from him. Those flocked around him were just as enthralled as I was with whatever he was saying, with his earnest expression, his animated gestures. Good-looking, charming, charismatic—didn’t it just figure he was the enemy? Someone to avoid at all costs?
Why hadn’t I read the freaking flyer before I tossed it? I could have made my excuses to Peyton and avoided the quad altogether. I glanced around. Besides the rather huge gathering, people were scattered through the courtyard, but no sign or Peyton or John or any of the others I’d studied with before. Relief filled me. I could just cut through, head to the dorm, and escape. Just tell Peyton later I couldn’t find them in the chaos.
That plan in mind, I started across the quad, skirting around the gathered masses. I tried not to listen as I hurried past, but try as I might, snippets of Maddock’s speech reached me.
“Safety should be our number one priority…”
“…don’t advocate any violence towards magic users, but…”
“Magic is a disease that should be eradicated to keep…”
“…wouldn’t allow rabid animals to wander about campus, why should we allow magic users the privilege?”
I nearly fell over stopping as quickly as I did. I struggled to control my breathing as I turned toward where Maddock spoke. I fought back tears as I saw those surrounding me nodding along with the poison he spewed. Over the pounding of my heart, which echoed in my skull, his words penetrated and filled me with a fear I’d never felt before in my life.
“They are just as dangerous. Do you want to be in the company of someone who could suck the life out of you with a look just because you said something they didn’t agree with or took offense to?”
“They should be put down!”
Maddock shook his head at the shouted statement. “No, that’s not the answer; that’s not fair. This isn’t something any magic user asked for—what’s inside them is a defect of birth. What they are is no fault of their own. Any violence against them is inexcusable.” His hand slashed through the air. “My father is part of a team of researchers who have been working for years to develop a cure for this…abomination. A way to rid these innocent people of the sickness that eats away at them, that corrupts them. And they are close, so close, but until that great day arrives, those with magic need to be contained. Where they can go and what they can do has to be limited. They need to be watched and monitored. As sad as that is, it’s essential, for everyone’s safety. Including theirs.”
He looked out over the crowd, and his gaze landed on me. Of course it did, because I was just that screwed. His bright grin stole my breath, again—but for very different reasons this time.
“There are people up here,” he gestured to his right, “who are waiting to take your signatures on our petition to ban magic users from campus. Rest assured, we aren’t asking to take away anyone’s right to an education. As part of our plea, we’ve offered suggestions, options for students who have magic—online courses, courses offered at locations set aside solely for their kind. Please sign, and be a part of this important movement. Thank you.”
He jumped off the platform and started making his way through the throng—straight toward me. Magic skittering just beneath my skin, I spun around and moved as quickly as I could in the direction of the dorm, away from the hate and prejudice, away from him.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I exited the quad and started down the far less crowded pathway between buildings.
“Delia! Hey, wait up.”
Short of running away and making a spectacle—which was the last thing I needed, and my mom would kill me—there was nothing I could do except listen to the slap of his shoes on the pavement as he caught up to me. My short-legged walk, no matter how hurried, was no match for his long, running stride.
“Thought we were going to grab coffee,” he said, slightly out of breath. “The rally ran a bit longer than I thought. Sorry about that, but it was a great crowd, don’t you think?”
Hysterical laughter bubbled up, and I was powerless to stop its escape. I kept telling myself to just agree with him, make an excuse to get out of coffee and get the hell away from him, but I couldn’t form any words. Couldn’t do anything but laugh.
He grabbed my elbow, pulling me to a stop beside him. I jerked away.
“Don’t—” I cringed at the volume of that one word, and drew on all my strength to lower my voice and control myself. “Don’t touch me.”
Maddock frowned and held his hands up, palms facing me. “Okay, okay! I’m sorry.”
“Whatever.” I shook my head and backed up a step. “Just stay away from me.”
My chest ached at the hurt, confused expression on his face, and I had to repeat his words in my head to stand firm. Disease. Rabid animals. Abomination. As charming as he was, as much as his feelings may be hurt, he thought of me as an abomination. That was what I needed to remember, right now.
“I don’t understand,” he said slowly. “I thought earlier that we’d… What changed between then and now, Delia?”