Foreplay: The Ivy ChroniclesSophie Jordan
the ivy chronicles
To Maura and May, my champions
About the Author
Also by Sophie Jordan
About the Publisher
All my life I knew what I wanted. Or rather, what I didn’t want.
I didn’t want the nightmares that plagued me to ever become reality again. I didn’t want to return to the past. To live in fear. In constant doubt whether the ground beneath me would hold solid and firm. Ever since I was twelve, I’ve known this.
But it’s strange how that thing you run from always finds a way of catching up with you. When you’re not looking, it’s suddenly there, tapping you on the shoulder, daring you to turn around.
Sometimes you can’t help yourself. You have to stop. You have to turn and look.
You have to let yourself fall and hope for the best. Hope that when it’s all over you come out in one piece.
Smoke billowed up from beneath the hood of my car in great plumes, a gray fog on the dark night. Slapping the steering wheel, I muttered a profanity and pulled to the side of the road. A quick glance confirmed that the temperature gauge was well into the red.
“Shit, shit, shit.” I killed the engine with quick, angry movements, hoping that might miraculously stop the vehicle from overheating further.
Grabbing my phone from the cup holder, I hopped out of the car into the crisp autumn night and stood well away from the vehicle. I knew nothing about engines, but I’d seen plenty of movies where the car blew up right after it started smoking. I wasn’t taking any chances.
I checked the time on my phone. Eleven thirty-five. Not too late. I could call the Campbells. They would come and get me and give me a ride back to the dorm. But that still left my car alone out here on this road. I’d only have to deal with that later, and I already had a ton to do tomorrow. I might as well handle it now.
I glanced at the quiet night around me. Crickets sang softly and wind rustled through the branches. It wasn’t exactly hopping with traffic. The Campbells lived on a few acres outside of town. I liked babysitting for them. It was a nice break from the bustle of the city. The old farmhouse felt like a real home, lived-in and cozy, very traditional with its old wood floors and stone fireplace that was always crackling at this time of year. It was like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The kind of life I craved to have someday.
Only now I didn’t quite appreciate how isolated I felt on this country road. I rubbed my arms through my long thin sleeves, wishing I had grabbed my sweatshirt before I left tonight. Barely October and it was already getting cold.
I stared grimly at my smoking car. I was going to need a tow truck. Sighing, I started scrolling through my phone, searching for tow trucks in the area. The lights of an oncoming car flashed in the distance and I froze, debating what to do. The sudden insane idea to hide seized me. An old instinct, but familiar.
This had horror movie written all over it. A girl all by herself. A lonely country road. I’d been the star of my own horror movie once upon a time. I wasn’t up for a repeat.
I moved off the road, situating myself behind my car. Not hiding exactly, but at least I wasn’t standing out in the open, an obvious target. I tried to focus on the screen of my phone and look casual standing there. Like if I ignored the approaching car its inhabitant would somehow not notice me or the smoking pile of metal. Without lifting my head, every part of me was tuned in to the slowing tires and the purring engine as the vehicle stopped.
Of course they stopped. Sighing, I lifted my face, staring at a would-be serial killer. Or my rescuer. I knew that the latter was much more likely, but the whole scenario made me queasy and I could only think of worst-case possibilities.
It was a Jeep. The kind without a roof. Just a roll bar. The headlights gleamed off the stretch of black asphalt.
“You okay?” The deep voice belonged to a guy. Much of his face was in shadow. The light from the instrument panel cast a glow onto his face. Enough that I could determine he was youngish. Not much older than myself. Maybe mid-twenties at the most.
Most serial killers are young white males. The random factoid skittered across my thoughts, only adding to my anxiety.
“I’m fine,” I quickly said, my voice overly loud in the crisp night. I brandished my phone as if that explained everything. “I have someone coming.” I held my breath, waiting, hoping he would believe the lie and move on.
He idled there in the shadows, his hand on the gear stick. He looked up ahead at the road and then glanced behind him. Assessing just how alone we were? How ripe his opportunity was to murder me?
I wished I had a can of Mace. A black belt in kung fu. Something. Anything. The fingers of my left hand tightened around my keys. I thumbed the jagged tip. I could gouge him in the face if necessary. The eyes. Yeah. I’d aim for the eyes.
He leaned across the passenger seat, away from the glow of instrument panel, plunging himself into even deeper shadow. “I could look under the hood,” his deep, disembodied voice offered.
I shook my head. “Really. It’s okay.”
Those eyes I had just contemplated gouging with my keys glittered across the distance at me. Their color was impossible to tell in the thick gloom, but they had to be pale. A blue or green. “I know you’re nervous—”
“I’m not. I’m not nervous,” I babbled quickly. Too quickly.
He leaned back in his seat, the amber glow again lighting his features. “I don’t feel right leaving you out here alone.” His voice shivered across my skin. “I know you’re afraid.”
I glanced around. The inky night pressed in thickly. “I’m not,” I denied, but my voice rang thin, lacking all conviction.
“I get it. I’m a stranger. I know it would make you more comfortable if I left, but I wouldn’t want my mother out here alone at night.”
I held his gaze for a long moment, taking his measure, attempting to see something of his character in the shadowy lines of his face. I glanced to my still smoking car and back at him. “Okay. Thanks.” The “thanks” followed slowly, a deep breath later, full of hesitation. I only hoped I wasn’t going to end up on the morning news.
If he wanted to hurt me he would. Or at least he would try. Whether I invited him to look at my engine or not. That was my logic as I watched him pull his Jeep in front of my car. The door swung open. He unfolded his long frame and stepped out into the night with a flashlight in his hand.
His footsteps crunched over loose gravel, the beam of his flashlight zeroing in on my still-smoldering vehicle. From the angle of his face, I didn’t think he even looked my way. He went straight for my car, lifting the hood and disappearing under it.
Arms crossed tightly in front of me, I stepped forward cautiously, edging out into the road so I could watch him as he studied the engine. He reached down and touched different things. God know
s what. My knowledge of auto mechanics was right up there with my origami-making abilities.
I went back to studying his shadowy features. Something glinted. I squinted. His right eyebrow was pierced.
Suddenly another beam of lights lit up the night. My would-be-mechanic straightened from beneath the hood and stepped out, positioning himself between me and the road, his long legs braced and hands on his hips as the car approached. I had my first unfettered view of his face in the harsh glow of oncoming headlights, and I sucked in a sharp breath.
The cruel lighting might have washed him out or picked up his flaws, but no. As far as I could see he had no physical flaws. He was hot. Plain and simple. Square jaw. Deep-set blue eyes beneath slashing dark brows. The eyebrow piercing was subtle, just a glint of silver in his right eyebrow. His hair looked like a dark blond, cut short, close to his head. Emerson would call him lickable.
This new vehicle halted beside my car and I snapped my attention away from him as the window whirred down. Lickable leaned down at the waist to peer inside.
“Oh, hey, Mr. Graham. Mrs. Graham.” He slid a hand from his jean pocket to give a small wave.
“Car trouble?” a middle-aged man asked. The backseat of the car was illuminated with the low glow of an iPad. A teenager sat there, his gaze riveted to the screen, punching buttons, seemingly oblivious that the car had even stopped.
Lickable nodded and motioned to me. “Just stopped to help. I think I see the problem.”
The woman in the passenger seat smiled at me. “Don’t worry, honey. You’re in good hands.”
Eased at the reassurance, I nodded at her. “Thank you.”
As the car drove away, we faced each other, and I realized this was the closest I had allowed myself to get to him. Now that some of my apprehension was put to rest, a whole new onslaught of emotions bombarded me. Sudden, extreme self-consciousness for starters. Well, for the most part. I tucked a strand of my unmanageable hair behind my ear and shifted uneasily on my feet.
“Neighbors,” he explained, motioning to the road.
“You live out here?”
“Yeah.” He slid one hand inside his front jean pocket. The action made his sleeve ride up and reveal more of the tattoo that crawled from his wrist up his arm. Unthreatening as he might be, he was definitely not your standard boy next door.
“I was babysitting. The Campbells. Maybe you know them.”
He moved toward my car again. “They’re down the road from my place.”
I followed. “So you think you can fix it?” Standing beside him, I peered down into the engine like I knew what I was looking at. My fingers played nervously with the edges of my sleeves. “’Cause that would be awesome. I know she’s a jalopy, but I’ve had her a long time.” And I couldn’t exactly afford a new car right now.
He angled his head to look at me. “Jalopy?” A corner of his mouth kicked up.
I winced. There I went again, showing off the fact that I grew up surrounded by people born before the invention of television.
“It means an old car.”
“I know what it means. Just never heard anyone but my grandmother say it.”
“Yeah. That’s where I picked it up.” From Gran and everyone else in the Chesterfield Retirement Village.
Turning, he moved to his Jeep. I continued to play with my sleeves, watching him return with a bottle of water.
“Looks like a leaky radiator hose.”
“Is that bad?”
Unscrewing the cap on the water, he poured it inside my engine. “This will cool it down. Should run now. For a while at least. How far are you going?”
“About twenty minutes.”
“It will probably make it. Don’t go farther than that or it will overheat again. Take it to a mechanic first thing tomorrow so he can replace the hose.”
I breathed easier. “That doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Shouldn’t cost more than a couple hundred.”
I winced. That would pretty much wipe out my account. I would have to see about working a few extra shifts at the daycare or getting some more babysitting gigs. At least when I babysat, I could get in some studying after the kids went to bed.
He slammed the hood back in place.
“Thanks a lot.” I shoved my hands into my pockets. “Saved me from calling a tow truck.”
“So no one’s coming then?” That corner of his mouth lifted back up again and I knew I amused him.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “I might have made that up.”
“It’s okay. You weren’t exactly in an ideal situation. I know I can look scary.”
My gaze scanned his face. Scary? I knew he was probably joking, but he did have that certain edge to him. A dangerous vibe with his tattoos and piercing. Even if he was hot. He was like the dark vampire in movies that girls obsessed over. The one who was torn between eating the girl and kissing her. I always preferred the nice mortal guy and never understood why the heroine didn’t go after him. I didn’t do dark, dangerous, and sexy. You don’t do anyone. I shoved the whisper back, batting it away. If the right guy—the one I wanted—noticed me, all that would change.
“I wouldn’t say scary . . . exactly.”
He chuckled softly. “Sure you would.”
Silence hovered between us for a moment. My gaze swept over him. The comfortable-looking T-shirt and well-worn jeans were casual. Guys wore them every day on campus, but he didn’t look casual. He didn’t look like any guy I ever saw around campus. He looked like trouble. The kind that girls lost their heads over. Suddenly my chest felt too tight.
“Well, thanks again.” Offering up a small wave I ducked back inside my car. He watched me turn the key. Thankfully smoke didn’t billow up from the hood.
Driving away, I refused to risk a glance back in my rearview mirror. If Emerson had been with me, I’m sure she wouldn’t have left without his phone number.
Eyes on the road again, I felt perversely glad she wasn’t there.
I nudged the door open with my shoulder, my hands overflowing with a popcorn bag and bottled pink lemonade. I walked into the adjoining room and sank down onto Georgia’s swivel chair. As usual, Emerson’s was covered in clothes.
ABBA throbbed on the air—Emerson’s signature getting-ready-to-go-out music. Whenever I heard it blaring through our thin walls, I knew preparations had started.
Setting my bottle down on her desk amid her mess of notebooks and books, I shoveled a fistful of popcorn into my mouth and watched as she shimmied into a tight miniskirt. The crazy black-and-white zigzag print looked good on her tiny frame. I winced, envisioning myself wearing it. Not a pretty picture. I wasn’t a five-foot-tall, hundred-pound spinner.
“Where are you going tonight?”
“Not your usual playground.”
“Freemont’s has gotten too full of frat brats.”
“I thought that was your thing.”
“Last year maybe. I’m over them. This year I’m more into . . .” She angled her head, examining herself in the mirror that hung on the door. “ . . . men, I guess. No more boys for me.” She flashed me a grin. “Wanna come?”
I shook my head. “I have class tomorrow.”
“Yeah. At like nine thirty.” She shook her head with disgust. “Please. My class is at eight.”
“Which you will probably miss.”
She winked. “Prof never takes attendance. I’ll get the notes from someone else.”
Likely some hapless freshman who got tongue-tied when Emerson approached. He’d probably offer her a kidney if she asked.
Georgia entered the room, wrapped in a terry-cloth robe and holding her shower caddy. “Hey, Pepper. You coming out with us tonight?”
My hand froze in the bag of popcorn. “You’re going, too?” That would be unusual. Georgia spent most nights with her boyfriend.
She nodded. “Yeah, Harris is studying for a big test tomorrow, so I figured why no
t? Mulvaney’s is pretty cool. Beats Freemont’s.”
Emerson shot me an I-told-you-so look. “Sure you don’t want to join us?” she asked, sliding a turquoise top over her head. It was sexy. One-shouldered and hugged her like a second skin. Something I would never wear.
“I’ll leave the wild nights to you two.”
Emerson snorted. “I don’t know how wild we can get with Georgia here. She’s practically an old married lady.”
“Am not!” Georgia unwrapped the damp towel from her head and threw it at Emerson.
Emerson grinned and snagged some popcorn from my bag. She wolfed down a mouthful and then licked at her buttery fingers, nodding at me. “You’re the one who should be going.”
“You should go,” Georgia seconded. “You’re single. Live a little. Have fun. Flirt.”
“It’s all right.” I shook my head. “I’ll get my vicarious thrills through the two of you.”
“Oh, be honest. It’s because of Hunter,” Emerson said accusingly as she stood in front of her mirror and applied product into her short dark hair. She tugged and arranged the strands until they stuck out at different angles, creating a wild, choppy look that surrounded her round face. She looked like some kind of cool pixie.
I shrugged. It was no secret that my heart belonged to Hunter Montgomery. I’d been in love with him since I was twelve.
A familiar ring tone trilled from my room. I thrust my popcorn bag at Emerson and rushed through the adjoining door.
Landing on my bed with a bounce, I snatched my phone from where I’d left it, glimpsing the caller’s name before answering. “Hey, Lila.”
“Oh my God, Pepper, you’re never going to believe this!”
I smiled at the sound of my best friend’s voice. She attended school across the country in California, but every time we talked it was like no time had passed. “What happened?”
“I just got off the phone with my brother.”
My heart squeezed at the mention of Hunter. It was no secret that I was infatuated with him. Crazy as it seemed, he was part of the reason I applied to Dartford. Not that it wasn’t a great school. When a little voice in the back of my head reminded me that there were other stellar schools out there, I chose to ignore it. “And?” I prompted.