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The Fearful Heart

esKape Press

Heat Rating: SWEET
Word Count: 51,793
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The heart must be protected at all costs... but will Cassidy be able to afford the price? Cassidy has distanced herself from childhood friend, Tristan. She’s moved on from their days of best friend-hood and is attending college. And dating one of the most eligible males on campus. Life couldn’t be better. Really. Tristan has devoted himself to Cassidy since they were children together. But no matter what he did, she’s never treated him like more than her best friend. He knows they can have something deeper. If only he can find the key to unlocking her fearful heart.

Excerpt

Chapter One
BOOM!
Cassidy shot upright, spitting out the pencil she’d been chewing on. It was a nervous habit and one she despaired of ever breaking; at least her mom wasn’t there to see the mangled stub. The crashes of thunder outside her dormitory window had grown louder, and sharper, during the past hours. Sucking in several calming breaths, she listened to the rain spattering on the roof before retrieving the pencil that had landed on her study sheet. She wrinkled her nose, reading the professor’s name on the top of the page.
Dr. Ezra Thorne, author of the five page syllabus and tyrant of the glyphs — zeros and sevens must have a line slashed through the middle — was labeled the toughest accounting professor at Fyfe University by his students. And it was Cassidy’s ill-fated luck to have ended up in his class in her final year of college.
Cassidy stretched her arms, bumping the small reading lamp clipped to the textbook propped against the stuffed bear on her bed. The pink and red blotches covering its cottony body made it truly unique – just like the person who’d given it to her.
She grinned, remembering the time Tristan had seen her wearing her green off-the-shoulder peasant blouse. Draped softly against her sun-kissed skin, it had literally made his jaw drop. And for a brief moment, she’d suspected — even hoped — he was going to fling the packed silver and maroon duffel bag across the room, yank her into his arms, and ask her to stay… to take a chance.
Instead, he’d offered to carry the bag to her car, but not before asking for his Yale Blue cardigan sweater back. A disillusioned frown revealed Cassidy’s disappointment, and she’d sulked to the closet to retrieve the sweater, curious to know the name of the girl Tristan planned on giving it to in her absence.
Shaking the distressing thought away, her bloodshot eyes lazily scanned the pages bathed in a white glow. As evening faded into morning, the words blurred together in a big blob; rendering it nearly impossible to study for tomorrow’s test in Dr. Thorne’s class.
Unable to focus, Cassidy closed the book and turned up the volume on her headphones. The chorus of “My Eyes Adored You” rang in her ears from the local oldies station in town. Her tired eyes flitted shut. She’d been in sixth grade and he in eighth when they’d met…
Romantic lyrics fused with nature’s rainwater symphony. Storm clouds darkened the sky... flashes of lightning lent a strobe effect. Wind whipped at her feet. On the ground, tiny stones spelled out 1 + 1 = 1 in the mud along the path lined with gravestones.
Sparks overhead. She must escape the storm. A door left ajar… she stumbled toward it. Fiery wires slithered and nipped at her heels. Another step, another flash. A large gust pushed her inside… Wham! Her body collided with the isosceles shaped desk. Books covered the walls and ceiling, swirling around her.
Thunk! A book fell from above… lying open on the desk. The wires climbed up its legs… coiling around the book. Fire spread at the pages’ edge. Flames and books crowded her. Words lit up across the paper: Love is friendship set on fire.
Love. Rising out of the flames… he appeared. Tristan. He whispered through the smoky air. She nodded. Move for—

~~~~

BOOM!
Cassidy startled awake, watching the room glow from the bolts of lightning. Dazed green eyes followed the flashes across the walls until the room was once again consumed in darkness.
Drip! Drip!
Cassidy peered toward the blackness of the ceiling where the droplets dampening her face had fallen. She wiped them away with her sleeve, rolling a drowsy eye back and forth as she squinted at the shadows lingering overhead along the tiles. A warm tear skimmed her cheek, and only then did she realize she had been crying in her sleep. Even with over two hundred miles separating them, she couldn’t escape Tristan — couldn’t forget his embrace, all of their shared memories. His last words still echoed in her mind: It’s time for us to move forward.
Drip! Drip! Drip!
“Agh!”
“Stop screaming up there.” Her roommate, Billie, gave the mattress of Cassidy’s bunk bed a shove.
“Don’t you feel it?” Cassidy blinked her eyes. She sat up, dabbing her face with the corner of her mauve comforter. It had smoky pink and amaranth rose petals strewn throughout the fabric that reminded her of home and the numerous rosebushes planted in the yard.
“Feel what?” Billie growled as a strong gust of wind rattled the glass of their dormitory window.
Cassidy shuddered at the noise and crawled to the end of the bed. With cautious steps, she descended the ladder from her bunk to the floor. At the bottom rung, she pulled her fuzzy robe from its hook then gripped the bedpost to steady herself while she slid her cold feet into a pair of kitty slippers. She walked over to Billie’s bed and sat down on the edge.
“Water was dripping on me from the ceiling.”
Billie propped herself up on an elbow. “Keane, I thought I told you never to talk to me before noon?”
“I know, but—” Rain clamored above them, a deluge on the dormitory roof, and spatters of water struck against the window. A hand reached up and grabbed her arm, and Cassidy gulped.
“Boo!”
“Not amusing.” Cassidy shook loose from Billie’s grasp. She stood and eased her way toward the window, which was still rattling from the high winds.
“Go back to bed. Only crazies are awake at this time of day.” Billie turned and buried her head in the blankets.
Cassidy stood at the window, watching the storm through sleepy eyes. Off in the distance, massive greenish-tinged clouds hovered in the sky as the rain saturated the ground. Loud claps of thunder pierced the dense air, and bold flashes of lightning illuminated the dorm room then returned it to darkness. The populous white ash and scarlet oak trees twisted and whipped in the wind, littering the ground with their stripped branches.
“It looks ominous out there. I hope we don’t get any tornadoes on campus.”
“Don’t worry,” Billie mumbled from underneath her blankets. “The university hasn’t texted a warning, or our cell phones would have beeped. And the tornado siren hasn’t gone off.”
“Not yet.” Cassidy bit her nail as she listened to the wind howl. “Oh, we would have to live on the top floor!”
She continued to watch the storm, listening to the church bells clang randomly every time the wind kicked up, and thinking of the verses in Job: Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightning flash? He loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them. The tempest comes out from its chamber, the cold from the driving winds.
Feeling the tension rising with every falling raindrop, Cassidy shivered as the window clattered. Her warm breath fogged up the paned glass and the chilly night air clung to her skin, covering her arms with goose bumps. She tightened the robe around her shaky frame and stepped away from the window, using the dim light from the hallway that appeared at the bottom of the door to guide her back to bed. She was about to climb the ladder when someone knocked at the door.
“What now?” Billie grumbled, tossing her covers aside.
“Stay there. You aren’t human until midday, remember?”
Billie nodded in agreement as Cassidy opened the door to find their Resident Advisor, Felice Devin, standing in her pajamas and slippers. The RA’s usual sleek, blond hair was disheveled and tied up in a ponytail. She held a half empty cup of coffee in her right hand and balanced a stack of papers in her left.
“Good morning, ladies. An early morning I might add.”
“Yes, it is.” Cassidy yawned. “What can we do for you?”
“Leave me out of the we.”
Felice peeked into the darkened room. “What was that?”
“It’s only Billie babbling in her sleep.” Cassidy shot an annoyed glance in her roommate’s direction.
“Really?” Felice shifted her weight, causing the coffee to swish in her cup. “I’ve been learning about somniloquy in my psychology class. Are her sleep utterances recurrent? If so, she might have a more serious underlying problem, like a psychiatric disorder.”
Billie’s low chuckle filtered out of the darkened room. “Uh, no. That was the only time.”
“Too bad. She might have made a great test subject in a sleep study.” Felice took a sip of her lukewarm coffee before getting down to business. “I’m handing out copies of the Standard Emergency Procedures for Fyfe University in case this storm worsens. The section referring to tornadoes can be found on page thirty-two. Also, in the event of a tornado on campus, all Brantley Hall residents are instructed to seek shelter in the dormitory basement.”
She indicated with a nod of her head for Cassidy to take a manual from the stack in her left hand.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get these circulated sooner, but the beginning of the fall semester is always a busy time for Resident Advisors.”
“It’s nice to know protecting your residents is a top priority,” Billie said. Her muffled voice was laden with sarcasm.
“I’d keep an eye on her,” Felice advised, turning to leave. She yawned and took another sip of coffee. “We’ll chat again later, after the caffeine kicks in.”
Cassidy closed the door as Felice ambled down the hall, then removed one of her slippers and threw it at the bottom bunk.
“Ow!” Billie yelped.
With her hands on her hips, Cassidy glared down at her roommate. “For someone who purports to hate mornings, you sure do talk a lot!”
“I couldn’t help myself,” Billie said, and laughed. “I mean, come on, she practically nominated me to be a guinea pig in some voodoo psychological experiment. And besides, mornings tend to bring out the worst in me. Why do you think I scheduled the majority of my classes in the afternoons and evenings?”
Cassidy bent down and picked up her slipper. “The professors who teach morning classes should send you a signed thank you card for not enrolling,” she snapped. “I, however, want an apology for having to white-lie away your foolishness. You know how I feel about dishonesty.”
Billie sat up and dangled her legs over the side of the bed. “I’m sorry, Cassidy,” she said as a wet glob smacked her bare knee below the hem of her sleep shorts. “Perfect. The roof really is leaking.”
“I tried to tell you,” Cassidy said. She reached for the light switch and flicked it on. As soon as the room brightened, a tile dropped from the ceiling and water spurted in.
“My bed!” Cassidy shrieked.
Billie leapt to her feet and shook the cold water off her legs. “Quick!” she pointed. “Give me that manual — I’ll find the extension for the Maintenance Department. Meanwhile, go find Felice.”
“I’m on my way.” Cassidy darted out of the room and into the hallway, passing by two or three doors before it occurred to her that she was still wearing her robe and slippers. She paused to tie the belt around her waist then rushed on to find her RA standing outside of a room near the elevator. Cassidy gasped when she realized who Felice was talking with.
“Those are some chic slippers,” the diva sneered, giving Cassidy the once-over. “Did you bring your little sister’s slippers to college by mistake?”
In her mind, Cassidy was shooting daggers at Ava Kayne. The petite brunette acted as though she was better than the other students, probably because she came from a wealthy family. She certainly dressed as though she belonged on the front cover of a fashion magazine. Cassidy stiffened. Her narrowed green eyes focused on Ava as she aimed knives right at her matching scarlet silk gown and robe, shredding the fabric into rags that fell upon her satin slippers. She rolled her eyes upward to find Ava smirking at her with glossy red lips.
“As a matter of fact, these are mine.” She lifted a leg in the air and wiggled the curly tail. “Do you think they could get featured in Vogue?”
“That’s quite enough, ladies,” Felice warned. She gave Ava a copy of the manual and then turned to Cassidy. “Do you have a question about the emergency procedures?”
“No. I need your help,” Cassidy said, lowering her foot. “A ceiling tile fell and we have water gushing into our room. Billie is calling maintenance about it now.”
“Come with me,” Felice said, taking hold of Cassidy’s arm. “We’ll check the housekeeping closet in the basement for some pails.”
As Felice pulled Cassidy to the elevator, she glanced over her shoulder to find Ava’s smirk transforming into a full-fledged, demonic smile. “Good luck,” Ava called down the hall.

~~~~

CASSIDY WAS STILL seething when she and Felice returned with the pails and a mop and bucket a short time later. When they entered the room, Billie was helping a burly man in a poncho hang a drain tarp from the ceiling.
“There you are. I thought maybe you decided not to come back to this mess.” She reached for a piece of rope dangling near Cassidy, quickly becoming aware of the fire burning in her roommate's eyes.
“I’m sorry I took so long, but I had to run down to Ava’s room to find Felice.”
Nothing more needed to be said after Ava’s name was mentioned. Billie wrinkled her nose, acknowledging their mutual distaste of the other girl. Billie handed the maintenance man the rope and he pulled it through the grommet. “I suggested using duct tape, but he thought this would work better until the storm passes and they are able to get up on the roof. They’ll have to repair the shingles that were blown away from the wind.”
The man laughed as he climbed down the stepladder. “Some days I wish a little duct tape was all that was needed on the job.” He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, and then picked up his metal toolbox. “I’ll be back in a bit to get my ladder, ladies.”
“I’ll help you clean up,” Felice said. She grabbed the mop and pushed it through the pooled water on the hardwood floor.
Cassidy stared up at the ceiling and sighed. “I guess we don’t need these pails now, but my bed is still waterlogged.”
Billie pushed the step ladder aside and reached for the laundry basket sitting near the closet. “I’ll help you strip the bed and take the bedding to the laundry room.”
“There you are,” an out-of-breath voice said from the doorway. “Felice, I need your help.”
Felice finished swirling the mop through the water and returned it to the bucket. “Let me guess — you have rain coming in your room, too?”
The girl nodded. Her rumpled pajamas and brown hair flattened on one side, suggested the girl had been sleeping until a few minutes ago. “Please hurry.”
“It seems we need the pails after all,” Felice said, gripping the handles as she stepped into the hallway, closing the door behind her.
Cassidy turned to help Billie pull the soppy floral comforter off the bed, when she caught a glimpse of the alarm clock on her roommate’s nightstand. The numbers were blinking on and off. She reached in the robe pocket for her cell phone and touched the screen. It was 8:30!
Cassidy groaned. “With everything that happened this morning, I completely forgot about my nine o’clock class.”
“Don’t worry about it. Class was probably cancelled because of the weather.”
Cassidy used her phone again to search the university’s alert notification system. No class cancellations had been posted. She walked over to the window and looked at the pathway below where a handful of students were running to class in the downpour. “I suppose I better throw something on and head out, too.”
“I’ll hold down the fort,” Billie said.

~~~~

AS SOON AS Cassidy stepped outside, the blustery wind and rain struck her face. She blinked in a failed attempt to keep the water out of her eyes and tugged the strings of her hooded jacket, pulling it tightly around her head. Her light-wash jeans were rapidly spotted with wet patches, and a blast of wind swayed the backpack hanging on her shoulder. She gripped the strap as she slid her other arm around the second strap, easing the backpack up on both shoulders while she made her way to class in the storm.
Cassidy lowered her head and walked toward the footbridge, which was halfway to Holquist Hall. Along the way, twigs and leaves swirled around her, and the soles of her shoes crunched the branches and acorns that had already fallen to the pavement. The sidewalk and grounds were also littered with flyers, school newspapers, and garbage that had blown about from various areas of the campus. She scanned the mess, trampling the debris as the wind continued to whip and push her body. She didn’t know if the relentless assault was comparable to being in a wind tunnel, but she was confident walking across campus in this weather came close to simulating the experience.
When she reached the footbridge, the rainfall was coming down in torrents, and the little visibility she had earlier was now further diminished. She started across, clutching her fingers around the guardrail as she moved onward. Her jacket and pant legs fluttered as the air current increased in force. She inched her way forward, wishing she had stayed back at the dormitory to help Billie, instead of braving the elements. Near the midway point, she encountered someone spinning around, snatching at errant papers blowing in the fierce wind. One of the pages blew past her and she reached for it with the hand that wasn’t clinging to the railing, just in time to grab the paper before it went over the side and down to the creek below.
“Thank you for catching that,” a husky voice spoke from the other side of the bridge. A tall, young man approached Cassidy, clutching a handful of soggy papers. “I believe, however, our effort was nothing more than a vain attempt.”
She handed him the wet page as their eyes met for the first time. He had dark brown eyes that reminded her of melting chocolate — soft and warm.
He smiled at her. “Well, at least one thing has gone my way today.”
A bolt of lightning flashed nearby, startling Cassidy with its crackling thunder, but his admiring stare unnerved her far more than the sound around them. “I’ll… um… be late for class.” She backed away from him as the rain continued to pummel the footbridge. She’d only taken a step or two when his hand grasped her arm.
“Wait, please! Classes must have been cancelled because the entrance to the science building was locked. I’m on my way home. May I walk you back to the dorm?”
Cassidy nodded. “I live in Brantley Hall.”
“Ah, well, that’s two things that have gone my way today,” he said, tightening his hold on her arm. “Let’s get out of this rain.”
Cassidy stepped beside him, feeling relieved that he was guiding them back to the safety of the dormitory. While they walked, she envisioned how hideous her appearance must be. Having been in such a hurry that morning, she hadn’t even showered or brushed her teeth! The jeans now glued by rainwater to her backside and legs had come off a pile of laundry lying on the floor. Cassidy wasn’t positive if they were clean or dirty. She had gathered her long hair into a frumpy ponytail and her face didn’t have a lick of makeup – there hadn’t been time. Cassidy looked up when he laughed, probably at the grimacing expression on her face, and blushed. Was he reading her mind?
A low hanging limb up ahead diverted his attention back to the sidewalk as he steered them away from the bothersome tree — and into a puddle, splashing them both. She glanced up at him, watching the rain and mud stream down his cheek. Although he was soaking wet, he was quite possibly the most handsome man she’d ever seen. His deep brown eyes were intense as they followed the path, ducking and zigzagging their way around potential dangers. Broad shoulders held staunch the charcoal nylon jacket he wore on his physically fit body. And the last of the water dripped off his chiseled jaw as they entered Brantley Hall.
The main door swung shut behind them as they made their way down the hallway and past the lobby to the elevator. He pressed the arrow button as she untied the strings of her jacket, letting the hood fall to her shoulders.
“I’m Keefe Brennan,” he said, extending his hand.
“Cassidy Keane.”
The bell dinged and the elevator door whooshed open.
“After you,” Keefe said, releasing his grip as they stepped inside. He pushed the second floor button and slipped out of his jacket. Dark patches caused by the heavy rain dotted the collar of his maroon sweatshirt. “What number do you need?”
“Four, please.”
Cassidy pretended to concentrate on the floor numbers above the door on the short ride up to the second floor to avoid having to make conversation with Keefe. Not that she didn’t want to talk with him, but at the moment she felt — and probably looked — utterly disgusting.
The elevator bell rang, and the door opened. Keefe stepped into the hallway, and she gave him a weak smile as the door started to close. Looking dejected, he simply waved goodbye.
Nearing the fourth floor, Cassidy recognized familiar voices beyond the door. When she stepped out of the elevator, Billie approached her, carrying a bottle of laundry detergent while she chatted with their RA.
“Hey, Keane, I was just telling Felice that maintenance replaced your mattress and I took your bedding to the laundry room. It’s in the washer right now.”
“Is there room in the dryer for me? I’m soaked from head to toe.”
“Go get dried off,” Felice urged. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to check on the other residents. I will talk with you later.” She hurried away, tucking the remainder of the manuals under her arm, and disappeared around the corner.
“I assume class was cancelled since you’re back so early,” Billie said as they headed toward their room.
“Don’t know. I only made it as far as the footbridge, and then we came back.”
Billie’s attention perked. “We?”
“Yes, her and Keefe Brennan,” a snobbish voice interrupted.
The roommates whirled around to find Ava standing in her doorway, grinning like a Cheshire cat, her eyes brimming with fire. “I spied you both outside in the rain. I’d hate to imagine what could have happened if Keefe hadn’t led poor, terrified Cassidy to safety.”
“Well, not everyone has a Jaguar to drive to class in the rain,” Billie retorted.
“My-my,” Ava drawled. “Aren’t we defensive?”
Billie lunged at Ava, but Cassidy grabbed her shirt and shoved her aside. “Ignore her,” she said. “There’s no need to lower ourselves to her level.”
“If you were at my level, you might actually have a chance with Keefe. After all, he is pre-med, which means he is way out of your league.”
Cassidy bit her tongue and stepped away, her fingers still clutching Billie’s shirt as they moved down the hallway.
“We should have these chats more often,” Ava said. “I find girl talk to be so rewarding.”

~~~~

BILLIE SLAMMED THE door and paced the room as the heels of her boots stamped the wooden floor. “She really burns my butt! Where does she get off insulting us like that?”
“I’m guessing she was born with an ‘insult’ gene,” Cassidy answered as she hung her jacket on the hook by the door. She brushed away a few damp, unruly strands of hair clinging to her long eyelashes, and then searched the closet for a change of clothes.
“She is pure evil,” Billie ranted. “I bet she even has little horns hidden in her hair.”
Cassidy flung a pair of sweatpants on her shoulder and reached for her Fyfe University hoodie. “I think you are letting that wonderful imagination of yours run wild,” she said, edging past her roommate.
“I’m telling you, there is something diabolical about that chick!”
“Maybe, but getting angry won’t help the situation. I want you to promise me that you will try and forget about her while I’m gone. Okay?”
“Where are you going?”
Cassidy opened a drawer by the sink and pulled out a towel. “I’m going to take a shower… a real shower, with soap and shampoo and most of all, hot water.”
“Yeah, well you better hope SheDevil isn’t in the bathroom washing her bottle-brown hair. There’s no telling what she might do to you in there.”
“I’m not worried,” Cassidy said, tossing her clothes and towel in the oversized mesh shower tote on the countertop while she grabbed her socks and undergarments from another drawer and hunted for her razor.
“Why not? Do you have Ava’s pitchfork hidden in your tote?”
“No, but I know how to flash the secret sign.”
“What sign?”
“This one!” Cassidy pointed her fingers atop her head to mimic horns and bounded at Billie, scaring her with a guttural outcry.
“Keane!”
Cassidy clutched her side in uncontrollable, and somewhat painful, laughter while her roommate caught her breath. “I’ll be back in half an hour. In the meantime, why don’t you formulate those imaginative thoughts of yours into a poem?” She closed the door before Billie could rebuff her suggestion.

~~~~

THE SOAP AND water slid off Cassidy and down the drain, taking the stressors of the morning with them. She grinned, remembering the expression on Billie’s face when she jumped at her, pretending to be one of Ava’s evil cronies. Ava was truly spiteful, but Cassidy doubted she was the devil disguised in designer wear. Billie, however, was not yet convinced. Cassidy laughed out loud as she envisioned her roommate combing through Ava’s hair, seeking out the buried horns she was sure sprouted from her head.
Cassidy was lathering her own hair with shampoo when the lights flickered, sending a chill up her spine, despite the fact she was standing in streaming hot water. She wondered if the wind was blowing the power lines or if Billie was trying to pull a prank on her — a little revenge for her earlier antics. Perhaps it was Ava? Maybe SheDevil had tampered with the fuse box so she could sneak in here and shish kabob Cassidy with her pitchfork? She shook her head, dismissing the paranoiac thoughts, while she continued washing her hair.
The lights dimmed again and she plunged her head into the flow, rushing to rinse the foam. She grasped the knob and turned the water off, listening as it trickled down the pipes until there was silence. She held her breath and waited, expecting to see or hear someone creeping into the shower stall. The only sound reaching her ears was the pounding rain on the rooftop. She exhaled and pushed back the curtain to the changing area, lifting the towel from the hook. As she dried off, she chided herself for being so silly. Then the lights went off, and she found herself in complete darkness.