I hope you’ve had a great week! I just arrived home last night from a nine days of helping my parents move cross country from NJ to CA. I’m exhausted but so happy to be home and so happy my parents had a smooth move. 🙂
In case you missed it, last week kicked off the start of my free Forever Broken chapter posts. This is a standalone book that I had started talking about over a year ago, but had never quite finished. As a thank you to all my amazing readers, I’m giving you Forever Broken for free and will be posting one chapter a week here on my website as well as on wattpad.com. Once all the chapters have been posted, I’ll publish it as one whole book on the various retail sites.
If you’d like to be notified when the Forever Broken chapters are posted, you can join my mailing list: http://jessicawoodauthor.com/mailing-list/
If you want to follow me on Wattpad, you can find me here:http://www.wattpad.com/user/JessicaWood344.
The prologue was posted last week here.
Here’s Chapter One:
August 26, 2013
The early morning sun gently warmed my cheeks as I sat on the steps of Eaton Humanities Building, waiting for Sociology 101 to start. The clean, warm Colorado air was sweet and comforting, filled with the memories of summer’s afterglow as fall started to set in.
But summer was over.
It was August 26, which marked the first day of the fall semester at University of Colorado, Boulder. While I was grateful for the start of another busy semester—to keep my mind busy and my emotions in check—today was not one of those days I was grateful for.
Today was the anniversary of a date that would be forever seared into my mind. A date that was a constant reminder of my past and what I had done and what I had to live with for the rest of my life. But I knew I had to keep it together today and keep my mind busy to get through it. After three years, I just had to get through this anniversary without a breakdown.
But before I knew it was happening, I was plunged into a familiar distant memory. Images of a room spinning uncontrollably around me flashed through my mind. I could almost smell the distinct aroma in the air. My body tensed as if it was happening all over again. I felt sick. I shook my head violently, willing the memory out of my mind. I took in a few deep breaths, trying to breathe in the warm sweet air again and block out that distinct smell from my thoughts. I shifted my body and tried to steady myself. It’s been over three years now. I have to move on from that moment. I’m not sure how, but I just have to.
I stared out into Norlin Quad and watched as a sea of students rushed passed. I could feel the excited energy surrounding them as they hurried to their first day of class. As I watched, I noticed that a few feet away from me, growing out of a crack in the pavement, was a dandelion, full with its delicate, off-white plume of dandelion seeds.
As I watched, a gust of wind blew through and a number of the delicate seeds parachuted off the stem and floated away, drifting freely at the whim of the wind, and gliding to their next destination. I yearned to be one of those dandelion seeds, to sail away effortlessly from its once-shackled existence on the dandelion stem. To be wild, free, and hopeful for its future. To be free from its past.
Some time must have past as I lost myself in my thoughts, because when I checked my phone, it was 8:15 a.m.
“Shit,” I exclaimed as I swung my tote over my shoulder and raced up the steps towards the door of Eaton Humanities Building. I was fifteen minutes late, and I hated being late for class, especially on the first day.
I pulled my class schedule out of my bag and double-checked that I was heading to the right lecture hall. As I approached the entrance to the lecture hall, I could see that the double doors to the room were already closed.
I took a deep breath and gingerly pushed against the metal lever to open the door.
The door gave away with a loud metal sound. Several dozen heads turned towards the double doors at the front of the lecture hall, spotting the cause of the disruption. The late arrival. Me. Ugh. Of course the doors to this lecture hall had to be in the front of the room, I thought bitterly. What an awesome start to this day.
The professor gave me a quick sideways glance as he continued talking. “So all the information you’ll need will be in the syllabus that’s being passed around. It’s also available on the website for this class.”
I quickly looked around, painstakingly scanning the room for an empty seat. I usually preferred to sit towards the front of the class. I had worked hard to get a full-ride to college, and my grades were one of the few things about me that I was proud of—actually, my grades were probably the only thing about me that I was proud of.
But today of all days, the lecture hall was packed, in part because it was the first day of class, and everyone showed up on the first day. And also, although this was one of the larger lecture halls on campus, with the capacity to seat three hundred people, Sociology 101 was one of the prerequisite electives that everyone had to take before graduating. It also didn’t help that this class was well-known to be an easy A. In fact, I had purposely taken this no-stress class to balance out my two hard science classes this semester: Organic Chemistry and Principles of Genetics. These were one of the two last classes I needed as a pre-med student, and I knew they would take up the majority of my time this semester.
After what felt like several long minutes, I finally spotted a seat in the very back row. Damn it. I hated the back row. That was totally the slacker section. I quickly walked carefully up the steps to the last row, trying to avoid drawing any more attention to myself, and took the lone empty seat in the last row. By the time I was seated, I felt my cheeks hot with a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance. I fumbled in my tote for my iPad and keypad to start taking down the information the professor was saying.
“Quite an entrance there,” came a low whisper to my left. I thought I heard a hint of a snicker in this guy’s voice.
“Thanks,” I whispered back as I furrowed my brow and turned to look at him. What an asshole.
But when my eyes met his, my breath caught and my heart must have stopped. All my annoyance evaporated and was replaced with a rare nervousness that I wasn’t sure I’d ever felt before.
“Hi,” he whispered as he leaned towards me with an effortlessly-sexy smile. His green eyes were sincere and mysterious as they twinkled at me. He was dark and handsome with thick, wavy dark-brown locks. His facial features were chiseled with a broad, set jaw. There was a slight scar above his right eyebrow that seemed to add an extra dose of allure and mystery to him. As he looked at me, his face carried a sexy, brooding look, like he was studying me in a way that penetrated to my soul.
Shit, he’s fucking hot! This was not the normal reaction I had when I met a guy. Since joining my sorority during freshman year, I have casually dated and slept with my fair share of attractive college guys around campus that other woman would have categorized as “fucking hot.” But this guy was something completely different. This guy was in a league of his own. In fact, I was pretty sure that if you were to look up “fucking hot” in the dictionary, there he would be, looking back at you in the same way he was looking at me right now.
“Hey,” I finally managed to mutter as I pulled my eyes off him and turned my attention to the professor.
“I’m Dylan Hutchins.” He extended his hand towards me, pulling my attention back to him. There was an air of confidence about him that was incredibly sexy and different. Not the sort of arrogant confidence that the typical popular college guy gave off, but something else. This confidence seemed relaxed and real, like he was completely comfortable in his own skin, which is the type of confidence most college students, including myself, lacked.
I reached my hand out to shake his, and a part of me thought about how oddly formal this was—but not odd enough for me to turn down a chance to touch him. He smiled when our hands touched—a wide smile that lit up the room. It also lit up a place inside me that had been dark and vacant for a long time, like an empty room abandoned years ago. His touch seemed to have unlocked and opened the door to that room, casting light in, exposing me to him, and leaving me more vulnerable than I have ever felt before. All this from a simple touch. This frightened me.
I pulled my hand back towards me as I nodded at him and gave him a small smile, trying to act nonchalant and unaffected by his natural charm.
He gave me an amused smile that I couldn’t quite understand. Is there something on my face? Why is he staring at me that way?
I turned my attention towards the front of the room. I refused to give him the satisfaction of seeing that I was affected by him in any way. He didn’t say anything, and yet, from the corner of my eyes, I could see that he continued to look at me.
“What’s wrong?” I finally asked as I turned to him, unable to take his intense gaze any longer.
“Well,” he said with a chuckle, “it’d be nice if you told me your name. I mean, I just introduced myself and you shook my hand but haven’t said a word.”
“Oh.” I felt my face grow hot. What is wrong with me? Why am I blushing uncontrollably? I didn’t usually act this way with men, not anymore at least. Not when I’ve vowed to not get romantically involved with anyone. So what was it about this guy that made me feel … vulnerable?
“Natalie. Natalie Brightman.” My eyes reflexively marveled at his muscular shoulders and arms, and noticed the way his t-shirt clung onto his body. Pull yourself together, I thought to myself as I forced my eyes away from his perfect body and up to his eyes. My breath caught again as he looked back at me with his rich, green hypnotic eyes. I knew right then that those eyes would be my Achilles’ heel. Those eyes would be the end of me.
“I like that,” he said smoothly as he lips curled into a seductive smile.
“Like what?” I asked, wondering if I’d missed something he had just said. Because quite honestly, with those eyes, I knew I could get lost in them and not even realize it.
“Your name.” His response was short and simple, yet it seemed to be laced with layers of meaning.
“Oh.” Unsure of how to respond, I pretended to turn my attention back to the professor at the front of the room as my mind raced around his words.
This was all so completely ridiculous. Since when have I, Natalie Brightman, been caught off guard like this? Since when had I felt so flustered because of a guy? And yet … a part of me wanted more of whatever this guy was making me feel. My heart raced in a way that was foreign to me. It wasn’t racing due to fear or worry. It was something else, something completely entirely different.
“As a well-known sociologist, Peter L. Berger once said,” came the professor’s words from the front of room, ‘“It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not what they seem.’”
Something about what the professor said struck a cord inside me and pulled my attention away from Dylan.
“This is true for all of us, regardless of how transparent our lives seem to be,” he continued.
Just then, I saw a movement from the corner of my eyes. I turned slightly to look at Dylan and noticed that his attention was also on the professor. He shifted in his chair. Was it my imagination, or does he seem uncomfortable? But how could his entire demeanor change so drastically from just a few seconds ago?
“Now, as you see from the syllabus, you will have one paper due in this class,” the professor said. “For this paper, I want you to write about something from your past that is not what it may seem to others. You will be required to apply the theory and principles that we will learn throughout the semester to this paper. So while you have the entire semester to work on it, I do not recommend putting this off until the end. You should start thinking back on your past and ask yourself what are some things in your life that may not be what they seem. You don’t have to tell me in your paper the specific of that past. For your paper, I want you to apply the things we learned in this class. This paper will be worth forty percent of your grade.”
A wave a dread rippled through me as I listened to the professor’s instructions. Maybe this wasn’t going to be an easy A of a class after all.
“Hey!” I heard a deep male voice yell from behind me. “Natalie, wait up!” I stopped and turned around to face the voice, wondering who was yelling after me.
It was the guy from Sociology 1001. Dylan.
I gave him a small smile as he approached me. “Hey. What’s up?”
“Why did you run off so quickly?” he asked.
“I didn’t run off,” I said defensively. “Running off implies that I was running away from something or someone to begin with. Which I was not. I just … I just had to go to my next class.” Okay, that was a lie. I did leave the class pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have another conversation with the first guy in a long time who had been able to affect me the way he had.
“Oh?” He smiled. “Which one? Can I walk you there?”
I looked up at him, my eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Don’t you have better things to do?”
He laughed. “Chill. Do I look like a stalker?”
No, you look like sex-on-a-stick. “The jury is still out on that,” I said.
He laughed again. “Tough jury,” he said with a wink and a wry smile. “Can’t a guy be chivalrous and walk a pretty girl to her next class?”
I felt my cheeks flush at his words. I knew some guys thought I was attractive, but never in a million years would I have imagined that this gorgeous guy would think that way about me.
“Well, I guess just this once I’ll throw caution to the wind and let a potential stalker walk me to class,” I shot back playfully. God, did I just seriously flirt with him? Something inside me knew I was playing with fire. I’ve flirted with guys in college before, but it was usually foreplay to a night of casual sex. And this, this felt different. I could tell that sex was not the only thing I wanted from Dylan, and that terrified me.
He beamed at me, revealing his dazzling smile. “Well, lead the way.”
We walked along the pathway of Norlin Quad towards the Ekeley Sciences building.
“So what year are you?” he asked as we walked.
“It’s my senior year. You?”
“Same. How come I’ve never seen you around before?”
I shrugged, but wondered the same thing.
“What’s your major?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going. There was an invisible magnetic tension between us that made me uncomfortable, and any silence seem to magnify the intensity inside me.
“Undecided,” he said coolly.
I frowned and turned to look up at him. “But, didn’t you just say you’re a senior?”
“Your point?” he said with a hint of amusement in his voice. “I still have next semester to figure that out.” He smiled. “And worst comes to worst, I’ll stay for another year,” he added in a matter-of-fact tone.
“But …” I wasn’t sure what to say. I was surprised by his relaxed attitude. How could he put in the time, money, and effort towards college and not seem to care what he was going to do with it? I almost felt sick at the thought.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, as if reading my thoughts. “I’ll eventually go to law school after this, and honestly, it really doesn’t matter what I major in. I just need decent grades,” he explained. “Which I have,” he added with a grin.
“Oh.” I realized this guy was like some puzzle I couldn’t figure out, like I was working with an incomplete set of pieces that could never make up the whole jigsaw puzzle. He wasn’t the typical college student. The few seniors who were still undecided on their major didn’t really have ambitious goals like going to law school after college.
Then I looked back at him.
“How old are you?” I asked.
He looked amused. “Why do you ask? How old are you?”
“Um. I’m 21, which is what most seniors are.” Then I paused and looked at him. “But you just seem different. Like you’re a little older.”
“I’m 23,” he chuckled. “And in case you’re wondering, this isn’t my third year being a senior,” he added.
I couldn’t help but laugh, because that was exactly what I was wondering. “So what’s your excuse then?”
“I took two years off after high school and before I started here,” he explained.
“Oh really? Why? To save up money for college?” I knew that I would have done that if I hadn’t gotten the full scholarship for college.
“No. I just wanted to take some time off of school.”
“Oh,” I frowned in confusion, “Like a gap year, but for two years instead of one?” Everything about this guy was different, and a part of me wanted him more because of it.
He laughed. “Something like that.”
“Wow. I don’t think I know anyone that’s taken a gap year, at least no one from the U.S.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty rare,” he replied without elaboration.
“So, what did you do during your time off?”
“I went abroad,” he replied after a brief pause.
“Oh? Where did you go?” Something about Dylan pulled me in, wanting to know more, like a beautiful, mysterious package waiting to be unwrapped layer by layer.
He smiled. “So who’s the stalker now?” he teased as he gently nudged the side of my shoulder playfully. I felt a spark of electricity coarse through us at the contact, and I wondered if he also felt it.
I looked away, trying to hide any signs of the effect he had on me.
“I did an around-the-world-trip, so I went to a lot of different countries. I stayed in England, Amsterdam, Thailand, and Japan for the majority of my two years.”
“Wow, that sounds amazing. I would love to travel abroad,” I said wistfully.
“What’s stopping you?” he asked, as if the answer wasn’t readily apparent to him.
I looked at him curiously. “Um, I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of it, but there is this thing called “money” that’s stopping me,” I said sarcastically.
Dylan laughed. “Right, I think I have heard of it. I’m pretty sure I’ve crossed paths with that pesky thing a time or two,” he said wryly. “But there’s a lot of places that are pretty cheap to travel too. Like Thailand or India. You can even teach English there as a job to make some income while you’re there. It’s totally doable.”
“Well, it sounds amazing, but it just doesn’t fit into my life plans.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You’re a little,” he laughed again, “stiff.”
I knew a tinge of hurt and resentment flashed through my face just then.
“Don’t be so uptight,” he teased with a grin and he gently nudged my shoulder again.
“Why are you so … so carefree?” I shot back. Why is he getting to me like this?
He laughed again. “I’m pretty sure that was an insult.”
“You can take it however you want.”
“You know, sometimes you just have to live life on the edge a little. Life isn’t in those books, it’s out there. Life happens when we’re actually living it. ” There was an undeniable excitement in his voice, and I felt a tinge of envy for his life. “So live a little.”
My feelings of envy quickly turned into resentful for his comment. Resentful for how easily he was able to judge me the way he did. Luckily, we had crossed the Norlin Quad and now stood at the steps of the Ekeley Sciences building. I wasn’t ready to get into a conversation about life with this stranger. I wasn’t ready to rip him a new one about how little he knew me and the type of sacrifices I had to make to get to where I was. No, I knew that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Well my class is here,” I said as I motioned up towards the Ekeley Sciences building.
He looked at the building and smirked. “Let me guess. Pre-med?”
“Yes,” I said flatly. I felt like I was being insulted by the tone in his voice.
“Hey,” he said, trying to get my attention, his voice softer than before.
I looked at him, and instantly regretted it. When our eyes met, I felt all my resentment against him dissipate. He smiled at me warmly, and the soft rays from the morning sun casted off his green eyes, making them sparkle.
“Please don’t take me too seriously. I hope I didn’t offend you in any way. I know I’m in the minority when it comes to life’s priorities at our age. And maybe I should care a little more about my future plans. But we only live once, and I don’t want my life to pass me by with any regrets I have the power to prevent.” There was something in his voice that surprised me, like he was trying to remind himself of what he was saying, like he was talking from experience.
He reached over and put his hand on my shoulder, and smiled.
His warm, firm touch sent a shiver down my back, and I looked up at him, but didn’t move.
“There’s something about you, Nat,” he said. I felt a rare flutter in my stomach. He used my nickname that only my friends used. I wasn’t sure why, but it sounded right coming from his lips. Then my eyes zoned in on his full lips, and I wondered how they would feel against mine.
“Well, thanks for walking me to my class,” I said quickly, trying to regain my composure. Before he could respond, I started making my way up the steps towards the door of the Ekeley Sciences building.
“So can I see you again?” he yelled after me. I turned around and saw the sincere hope in his eyes, and felt my heart battling between emotions.
Yes, yes, God yes! I thought.
“I—I’m sure you will,” I lied, knowing that the rational part of me will try to avoid him. “We’re in the same class after all,” I added.
“Don’t play coy with me,” he teased. “You know that’s hard with a class of 300.”
I feigned a laugh and waved goodbye to him as I disappeared into the front door of the building without responding.
I knew he was right. With a class as large as Sociology 1001, it wasn’t likely I’d see Dylan again in class. Plus, I would never sit in the back row if I had a choice.
This was a good thing, I tried to convince myself. I knew I shouldn’t let him in. He wouldn’t like me if he knew the real me, and I wasn’t sure my heart could withstand that loss if I were to let this man in. While a part of me desperately wanted to know where this could go, I knew this was reckless. This was far more reckless than my one-night-stands with men I didn’t care about. This would require my heart to be on the line.
I knew I would be tense and on edge today. That was something I was prepared for. But something about this morning left me unsettled. Besides the sadness and guilt I was expecting, I felt something else—the last thing I expected to feel. Could it really be excitement running through me? Is it even possible to feel something that has been absent from your life for so long?
“There’s something about you, Nat.” His words echoed in my mind.
When I walked through the front door of the Kappa Phi Tau house, I was relieved to find the first floor of the sorority house empty and quiet. I walked up to my room on the second floor and was thankful that I had my own room this year. I dropped my tote at the foot of the bed and sunk into my bed. I laid there with my eyes closed, trying to let the tension of the day to leave my body.
Just as I felt myself drift into the stage right before sleep, my phone rang.
“Ugh,” I mumbled as I reached for my phone.
It was Julie. Dread filled me. I knew what this call was about, but I knew I couldn’t avoid it.
“Hey, I was just about to call you,” I lied when I answered the call.
“For some reason, I highly doubt that.” I could hear the smirk in her voice. “So how’s my brilliant younger sister doing? How are classes?”
“It’s just the first day, so not bad so far. How’s everything with you guys? What are you guys doing for Claire’s birthday?”
“Oh, you did remember,” Julie said in surprise.
“Yes, Jules. Of course I’d remember Claire’s birthday. She’s my only niece after all,” I said. I felt irrationally annoyed. I would never forget Claire’s birthday, not when it fell on the date that was forever seared into my memory. But of course, I knew Julie didn’t know that.
“I know. Sorry, I shouldn’t have sounded so surprised. Can you believe my little girl is three already?” I could hear the excited glee in her voice, the type of excitement a proud parent would have, and a pang of jealousy and desire for her pure euphoria hit me. “Time really flies.”
“Right,” I agreed solemnly. Yes, it’s been three years. Time flies. And yet, the pain remains just as fresh and unforgiving, I thought to myself.
“Oh here’s the birthday girl now. Can you believe she loves to run around all the time now? And I mean, all the time! I can barely keep up! And ohmygod, I totally think she’s going to be a diva! Lately, all she’s agree to wear are dresses,” Julie laughed, and her happiness was almost palpable through the phone. I wanted to be completely happy for her, but her happiness stung, especially on this day.
I heard rustling on the other end of the line. “Oh, Claire wants to talk to you,” came Julie’s voice, which sounded more distant than before. I could almost see Claire’s tiny fingers grabbing at the phone in Julie’s hand.
“Is dis—dis Aunt Nadalie?” came Claire’s voice, which always had a way of melting my heart.
I felt tears begin to well up in my eyes, and took a deep breath before saying, “Happy birthday, sweetie! Yes, it’s Aunt Natalie. I can’t believe you’re getting so big!”
“Yup. Yup. Yup.” Then I heard a fit of giggles from Claire. “Imma tree! Imma bid girl now, Aunt Nadalie.”
I smiled through my tears. “Yes, you are a big girl now. What are you doing today?”
“Ummm. Mommy got a tate. An my priends are here, an daddy got a moon bounce! It’s weally fun!” Claire said excitedly as she slurred her words.
“Oh, sounds like so much fun, honey! I wish I was there to eat some of that cake. I’m sure you will have so much fun with your friends and the moon bounce! I’m so jealous!”
Another fit of heart-warming giggles exploded from Claire, and I couldn’t help but smile and get choked up.
“Well honey. I want to wish you a very happy happy birthday!”
“Thanks, Aunt Nadalie! Wuve you! Here’s mommy! Bye-bye!”
“Okay, bye, sweetie. Love you!”
“God, it’s crazy around here, Nat,” came my sister’s voice again on the other end.
“It sounds like it,” I said as I heard kids laughing and screaming in the background.
Julie laughed. “It was Bill’s crazy idea to order a Dora The Explorer moon pounce for the backyard for Claire’s birthday. The kids are going nuts with it. It’s like watching a dozen toddlers tumbling inside that thing, like—like popcorn popping.” Julie laughed at her description.
“Well, it sounds like you’re pretty busy, so I’ll let you go. Give Claire a big birthday kiss and hug for me, okay?”
“No problem, Nat. It was great hearing your voice. Come visit sometime. We’re less than two hours away, you know.”
A wave of guilt washed over me. “I know. I’m sorry I’ve been so busy since I’ve left for college. I’ll try to visit really soon. I promise.”
“Love you, Nat. Take care of yourself, okay?”
“Will do. Love you too, Jules.”
I hung up the phone and finally allowed the tears that had been burning my eyes to stream down my face. I’ve only seen Jules, Bill, and Claire a handful of times since I left for college three years ago, a few weeks before Claire was born. The few times I saw them, it was during the holidays, and there were other family around, so I never had any one-on-one time with them, or with Claire. And I would never admit it to Julie, but this was intentional. I just couldn’t endure seeing Claire too much. Not because I didn’t love her. No, I adored her. She was probably the cutest baby, and now toddler, that I’ve ever seen. Her rosy cheeks and gold curly locks that bounded playfully whenever she moved. She was the picture of innocence, so pure and untainted from life.
But Claire shared her birth date with a memory I’ve wanted desperately to forget, but knew I could never escape from. Claire’s innocence and that date would always be a reminder of what I’ve done, and in the past three years, a dull ache has consumed my heart and soul. It was a date that had brought me relief and regret. It was a date that had forever changed me.
I got up from my bed and as I placed my phone down on my desk, my eyes met the gaze of a pair of sad eyes staring back at me—my reflection in the full-length mirror hanging against my closet door. A reflection I no longer recognized, someone who was not the same person she was just four years ago.
The quote I heard early today in my sociology class rang through my head: “It can be said that the first wisdom of sociology is this—things are not what they seem.”
I looked into the mirror and looked at my reflection. I knew what others saw when they looked at me. My glossy, brown waves that fell perfectly down my shoulder, my sun-kissed tan, my immaculately-manicured nails, and my rich, gold hazel eyes that seemed to draw people in. I knew that those who have met me probably think the same thing: there goes Natalie Brightman, the fashionista, the pretty, popular girl, the straight-A student—the girl with the perfect life.
But things are not what they seem, because that was far from the truth. Nothing in my life was perfect. Since my life feel apart three years ago, I had become this empty, broken vessel of a person. Sometimes it was the broken pieces of oneself—the pieces that others could not see from the outside—that were the hardest to forget.
Chapter 2 will be posted next week. Are you ready? 🙂