The first chapter of Spitfire—right here!
With only one more week before Spitfire comes out in the Tangled Sheets anthology, I wanted to share the first chapter here so you can get a little taste before release day! If you love angsty, bully, steamy romance...you won't want to miss this one.
Preorder now: https://books2read.com/u/4AKG6e
The students start piling into their seats about five minutes before the actual start of class. My hands are shaking as I open my laptop, trying to appear as natural as possible even though I could literally throw up at any moment. In my smooth black dress belted at the waist and covered with a rich green cardigan, I attempt to look the professor-type.
This is my first class at Florence University, and with all of those faces peering down at me from the ten rows in the lecture hall, I’m starting to rethink this decision. I need a fresh start, something new and different than another writing job at another publication. Instead of trying to constantly live up to the peak of my journalism career, I figured teaching at the local college would be the change I desperately need.
The seats fill up fast, and I take a look through my updated roster list again. Last I checked there was only one empty spot in my Journalism 101 class. But as I hit refresh again, I notice the number goes from 199 to 200 students. Looks like we had a late registration. I feel a sense of pride at having my first class fill up so fast.
Peering down the list of names again, something familiar catches my attention. It’s a new name, definitely not on the list when I checked it last night.
A chill runs down my spine. I’d know that name anywhere. Eight years ago, my first investigative article, a thesis for my master’s program, broke the mold. My discovery for that writing contributed to a major federal investigation against George Ayers, a multi-millionaire hotel chain owner, convicted of running an underground, black market human trafficking scheme.
It was huge news at the time. Not only did it launch a federal campaign, but it put my name on the map as far as up-and-comers in the industry were concerned—a high I’ve been chasing ever since.
Of course, I would have an Ayers in my first Journalism class.
Clicking on the name just as class is supposed to start, my curiosity gets the better of me. I wonder if I would recognize this specific Ayers or if there is any family connection. They were local to the area, so it wouldn’t be super surprising. And at first, I assume it’s a distant cousin or something.
My eyes focus on that name for a moment too long. It’s like time stops altogether. Blood rushes to the skin of my cheeks, my heart running wild in my chest, until all I can hear aside from the white noise chatter of the two-hundred students around me is the acceleration of my breath.
The sudden vision comes crashing to the front of my mind—a young boy with rich black hair, tan skin, and haunting crystal blue eyes staring blankly at me in the courtroom as his father was carted away in handcuffs after being sentenced to thirty years in a federal prison. Cullen was only…what, ten at the time?
Still staring at the screen, I feel the eyes of the crowd waiting for me to begin class, and suddenly I can’t focus on this course at all.
Is Cullen here? Is he looking at me too? Does he remember me?
It must be a coincidence. I guess he would be college age now, but in my mind he’s still just a little kid. Most people have forgotten about that case by now. News dies as fast as it comes.
And the whole point of taking this job was to move on from the past, but how can I move on when it’s sitting right here in my Journalism class?
When I finally gather the courage to look up, I’m overwhelmed by the number of faces peering down at me. Sure, most of them are still glued to their phones or laptops, but about half of them seem to be waiting for me to start class. I scan the crowd for a moment looking for his face, but none of them stand out.
I have to start class. Clearing my throat and forcing a smile on my face, I lean back against my desk and say as clearly as I can, “Good morning, and welcome to Journalism 101. My name is Everly West, and I will be your instructor this semester.”
The mic attached to the neckline of my dress picks up my voice, carrying it through the room. It also picks up the shake and erratic cadence of my breath. Moving around to the other side of my desk, I click the button on my computer that brings up the presentation, mirrored on the wall behind me for the class to see.
I quickly go through the whole class portal and the syllabus, trying hard not to bore them to death, but it’s not easy. This stuff isn’t exactly riveting. All the while, I keep my eyes on the crowd, waiting to find those familiar blue orbs I remember from eight years ago.
As I scroll through the PowerPoint presentation of what I’ve accomplished as a journalist, and what is expected of them in my course, my heart practically stops in my chest as the slide freezes on a photo of me holding the headlines I wrote when I was just twenty-four: “Ayers Under Investigation for Trafficking Felony, Faces Fifty Years.”
And right under the headline is a photo of him in handcuffs while his family looked on in horror. I swallow my nerves as I try to find the guts to keep talking.
“This was a photo taken with my first big article in the Florence Times. Being an investigative journalist is about more than just writing the story. You have to…find the story, and sometimes finding the story means uncovering secrets and crimes no one ever knew were even committed.”
Someone clears their throat in a completely silent room, and my eyes dash up to the crowd again. That was him. It had to be him, but I still don’t see him, scanning each head for that mop of pitch black hair.
After taking a deep breath, I continue. “You will be required in this course to write your own piece of investigative journalism after doing research and compiling it into an expository article. This will be the final due at the end of the semester. The rubric can be found in your syllabus.”
I hate how uncertain I sound. This one kid has me unsettled already. Fuck, for all I know he didn’t show up for class today, especially if he just registered.
And so what if he is here? I don’t know why I feel so nervous already. I was just doing my job. It’s not like I was the one committing the crime, so I’m not going to feel bad about it.
After the quick mental pep talk, I square my shoulders and finish my first lecture. Before I know it, the class time is up, and I dismiss them with their first assignment.
The room erupts in noise as all two-hundred college students begin filing out of the lecture hall. I busy myself with making notes on my computer for the next few moments when after about ten minutes I glance up and see one student still sitting at the top row in the very corner. It’s a male with bleach blond hair.
“I’ll be closing up the room in a moment,” I announce casually. At first I thought he was asleep, but then I notice he’s just staring down at his phone. There is no backpack or laptop on his desk.
His head snaps up in my direction, and he’s so far away I can’t quite make out his face yet, but as he stands and walks slowly down the stairs toward me, my heart nearly stops in my chest.
Those baby blue eyes under dark brows make it hard to breathe.
He reaches the bottom of the stairs, standing just a few feet away from me in complete silence so all I can hear is the distant chatter of voices outside the room.
“Can I help you with something?” I say, keeping the tremor out of my voice.
It makes sense now why I didn’t recognize him. For one, he’s not ten years old anymore. He’s tall with a lean frame, sculpted shoulders, and thick forearms.
His once black hair is bleached to a stark white with dark roots, and there is a piercing on his lower lip and right brow. It’s a far cry from the rich, preppy schoolboy I saw all those years ago.
That little boy is now a man, and he’s standing just in front of me, feeling like less than a stranger, but far from a friend.
Part of me wonders if I should say something about the case or his father or the giant fucking elephant in the room, but I don’t. I can’t. What could I possibly say to him now?
Oh hey, I remember you. I put your father away for your entire life. How’s your mom? Oh yeah, I forgot—she OD’d on pain meds less than a year after that court case we were both at. So…how’ve ya been?
And I keep waiting for him to say something, but he doesn’t. The room is completely silent as he stalks closer, stepping quietly toward me until he’s crowding me against my desk. He’s much taller than me and intimidating so much that I’m rendered speechless. Alarms are going off in my head. Should I alert security? Is this going to be an issue? Would he hurt me?
“What are you doing?” I whisper once he’s standing just a few inches away from me.
I’m about to die. My brain registers the danger, and my mouth goes dry. Then of course, as he’s standing so close I can smell the clean aroma of the soap he used this morning, I notice how long his lashes are and the perfect contrast of his bright lips against his warm sun-kissed skin.
Jesus, Everly. He’s eighteen. What the fuck is wrong with you?
Right as I’m about to finally say something, he leans closer, stealing every thought from my head. Oh, fuck is this kid about to…kiss me?
But he doesn’t. Instead, his eyes glare intensely into mine, and he squints ever so slightly, and I hear something land against the desk behind me. He just dropped something there without me noticing, but he’s still so close I can’t even turn around to see it.
Finally, he pulls away, leaving me to gasp for breath. Without a word, he’s gone, and I stand there for a long time, just waiting for my heart to calm to a normal speed.
What the fuck just happened?
Turning around, I see what he left on my desk. It’s an orange pill bottle.
Picking it up, my heart nearly stops when I read the name on the label.
The prescription is for oxy, and I immediately drop the bottle on the floor as I read it. The Ayers family was in the paper twice that year. The first time for George going to prison and the second was for his wife, thirty-three year old Valerie overdosing on her pain medication and dying in her sleep where her only son found her the next morning.
The doctors ruled it an accidental death, but the community knew the truth. After the family lost their business, wealth, reputation, and inheritance, she quickly became addicted to pills and killed herself just days before they were supposed to be evicted from their million dollar home.
I never blamed myself for what happened to George, but reading about Valerie’s death shook me. It was hard not to feel responsible for that. I never really thought much about Cullen.
But I guess he was thinking about me.
Preorder now: https://books2read.com/u/4AKG6e