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By Molly Ringle
Central Avenue Marketing Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Molly Ringle
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Don't start crying, Sophie Darrow repeated to herself as she stared into the small, empty closet in her new dorm room. True, her parents and little brother had just driven away, heading back to Washington, leaving her here at Oregon State University for her first term of college. And yes, her boyfriend was beginning college in a different city and her best friend in an even farther city. So, indeed, Sophie was all alone now, alone to a degree she'd never experienced before; and she knew nobody here, and missed her family and friends so much it felt like a fresh wound in her chest. And meanwhile, of course, panic was rapidly overtaking her at the idea of facing life as a university student.
But surely the other freshmen in the dorm suffered the same problems, and they didn't sound like they were about to cry. They laughed and chatted out in the hall, just past her open door, unfolding their life stories to each other with glee as if this was the best vacation they'd ever taken.
What was wrong with her?
Sophie drew a deep breath, blinked three or four times, and knelt to unpack her shoes into the closet.
All she had to do was get her stuff moved in properly, make this little room feel like home. Then her spirits would recover.
As if this could ever be home, her lonely mind lamented. Home was the drafty farmhouse in Carnation, Washington, out on the highway, the family produce stand set up at the roadside. Home was her room on the second floor, a tattered and colorful oval rug on the uneven hardwood planks, her bed with extra comforters piled up against the chilly nights. Home was Liam, her little brother making a clattering racket on his skateboard in the cracked driveway. Home was sleepovers with Tabitha — now far away in Seattle — or, lately, cozy movie nights with Jacob. Home was Mom and Dad and the dogs, and not having to procure her own food and share a room with a girl she'd never met.
Kneeling on the floor, pulling the packing tape off a box of clothes, Sophie stopped and closed her eyes. Don't start crying.
At that point her father's words came back to her. Don't start crying. Start doing.
He said it whenever she threw a frustration fit about homework, or a fight with Liam, or someone bullying Tabitha or herself. "Do something to fix it, and if you can't, then do something else to make your life better. Tell you what, crying isn't going to fix it."
Sophie took another deep breath, in and out, and wiped her eyes. Line up the shoes. There. Already did something. Now, perhaps, to take a picture of how ridiculously tiny her closet was, and send it to Tabitha, who probably had a more glamorous dorm room, since she was at an arts college.
But as Sophie got out her phone, someone wandered into her room, babbling in a foreign language on a cell phone.
Sophie rose to her feet to stare at him, regarding him as both an intruder and a welcome distraction.
He lowered the phone beneath his chin long enough to tell her, in heavily accented words, "I am sorry. This phone, it is like crap. I get signal only here."
Then he was shouting into the phone again and gesticulating at his invisible acquaintance.
"No problem," Sophie said, though he couldn't have noticed, what with his tirade.
Her homesickness subsided a bit as she looked upon this new perspective. She couldn't imagine studying in an entirely different country, where they didn't even speak your native language. Poor guy.
She sat on her still-bare mattress, between a box of books and a stack of clothes on hangers, and studied him. His dark brown hair was thick and curly, fluffing out around his head to near-Afro levels. Sophie could do that to her hair if she wished — she had genuine African heritage on her dad's side. But this boy looked more Mediterranean. Maybe that was Italian he was speaking?
Sophie reached back to scratch her neck, and found her hair was escaping from its clip, tendrils sticking to her skin. The September weather here in Corvallis, Oregon, was turning out hotter and more humid than the university brochures had advertised, and the dorms lacked air conditioning. After carrying all those boxes up two flights of stairs, Sophie was sweaty and sticky.
The boy's tan skin gleamed at the temples with sweat too, as did the triangle of sparsely-haired chest above his shirt. He was tall and fit, with a perfect complexion, and possessed a certain beauty with that symmetrical face and thick hair. And a foreign accent was usually a plus. But those clothes — oh, honey, she thought, adopting her best friend Tabitha's favorite condescending phrase.
His shirt was striped purple and orange, and a white drawstring zigzagged up its V-neck. His red jeans clung like tights to his body. Golden leather sandals rounded out the ensemble. Seriously, golden, as if he had spray-painted them. Even Sophie didn't own any footwear so sparkly.
When the boy swung away from her, still arguing in Croatian or Russian or whatever it was, Sophie surreptitiously snapped a photo of him with her own cell. Setting the phone on her lap, she added a message for Tabitha.
Room just got invaded by this guy, shouting on cell in foreign language. Welcome to college.
She sent the text to Tabitha, up in Seattle, and thumbed through her other messages for a minute.
Her little brother Liam had just texted her, presumably from the car, Mom is txting some1, wtf?, which sent her stomach into an uneasy dip. She had her suspicions about their mom's leisure activities lately, and whom she might be texting.
Meanwhile, Sophie's boyfriend Jacob had told her: I miss you :(at which she sighed sadly.
A text bounced in from Tabitha, in response to the photo: Hi, the Eurotrash club called. They want their clothes back.
Sophie grinned, but felt bad for making fun of the nice clueless visitor. Just then, the guy told the other speaker something that sounded like "Okay" and some kind of goodbye, and switched off his phone. She set hers down too.
He pushed aside her box of books and sat with a sigh beside her, resting his head in both hands. He smelled like a thrift store, as if he had just today purchased that outfit at one.
Sophie waited for an explanation, and, getting none, asked, "So, what language was that?"
"Eh?" He lifted his face. "Oh, yes. Greek. I am Greek. You have heard of Arkadia?"
"Yes, is in Peloponnisos, in Greece."
"I am from there. Yes."
"How are things at home?"
Another big sigh. He cast a look of desolation at her window. The late afternoon sun lit up his pale green eyes. "Is difficult," he said. "My family and friends, there is problems always, between them. And my cousin, he wants me to find a girl for him."
"He wants you to find him a girl?"
"He looks for someone, a certain girl. Is my job now, somehow."
"Um. Yeah, that's difficult." Sophie decided she wasn't even going to ask.
He stuck out his hand. "I am Nikolaos. Hello."
She shook hands with him. "Sophie."
"Ah! Sophia. Is good name. Greek. Wisdom."
"Yep. That's right."
"You know. Of course. You are how old? Eighteen?"
"Ah, I as well. So you are freshman here too?"
She nodded. "Just moved in." Her gaze trailed along all the things she still had to unpack, and the tiny half of the room in which she had to fit them. Her roommate Melissa, a short, mousy, pale Oregon girl with brown corduroy shorts and white sneakers, had stuck around for about two minutes when Sophie and her entourage had arrived. Then Melissa had backed out of the room, flashing her student ID and claiming it was time to go use it to get dinner, and vanished. Apparently dinner took a while, as that was two hours ago. Sophie was alone.
Her mood sagged downward again as she recalled just how alone she was.
"So I am confused," Nikolaos said. "You can help me perhaps?"
Sophie lifted her head. "How?"
"You know where bookshop is? For the textbooks?"
"Yeah, I went there earlier. You go down the main street outside, and —"
"The street here?" He pointed in the wrong direction.
"No, right down there, by the parking lot."
"I go across a street?"
"Actually, you just go down the street, and ..."
He crinkled up his eyes, looking hopelessly lost. "It is not far? You can show me, yes?"
Sophie gave up. Getting out of the dorm room would be a relief anyway. "I can show you. Sure."
He beamed and jumped up from the bed with her. "Thank you. It is good. You are very helping."
Stuffing her cell phone in the pocket of her denim shorts, Sophie led Nikolaos into the dorm hallway and locked her door. She turned and headed for the stairwell. Nikolaos followed, bobbing beside her, grinning too widely at everyone who passed.
They trotted down the stairs and emerged into the breezeway between Sophie's dorm and the next. Warm air rolled over them, smelling of dry grass and a thousand burgers being cooked.
"I see you moving in with your family before," Nikolaos said. "There was tall boy with hat. He is your boyfriend?"
Jacob had bravely worn his new yellow and green University of Oregon cap onto the Oregon State University campus, earning him jeers from a car full of OSU football fans.
"Yes. He's going to U of O, down in Eugene." Forty miles away. Not so far, perhaps. But until now, she had always lived in the same town with him, and with everyone else she knew.
"He does not know how lucky boy he is." As they entered the shade of a huge redwood arching its branches over the sidewalk, Nikolaos threw his arm around Sophie's shoulders. "I make him jealous, yes?"
Uh-oh, she thought. She faked a laugh. "Probably shouldn't." She tried to push his arm off, but it wouldn't budge. The boy was stronger than he looked.
While she tried to decide the nicest way to say Hands off, dude, Nikolaos swung to face her, snaring her in both arms. "Hold on tight."
Her face went hot in protest. She tried to twist away, still failing. "I'm serious, I —" At that second the ground heaved beneath her. Losing her balance, she tumbled into the tall grass, in Nikolaos' arms.
An earthquake? No, it had only been one jolt, no rolling or rumbling. And tall grass? Where had that come from? They'd been walking along the dorm sidewalk, next to short hedges and cropped lawn and a few giant redwoods — all of which were now gone.
As she debated whether to worry about that later and stick her thumbs in his eyes now, Nikolaos pinned her to the lumpy ground, grinning. "That was easy. We must teach you to be less trusting."
His awkward Greek accent had nearly vanished, only a trace of it remaining. He now spoke a fluent and rather British English.
He'd been faking! Bastard. The self-defense moves they'd taught her in high school gym class came sweeping back to her on a wave of fury. She slammed her knee up between his legs, and shoved both hands at his face.
He grunted, and rolled off her, clambering to his feet. "Ow. Careful." She had definitely made contact — her knee and fists throbbed from it — but he didn't appear to be in any pain.
Whatever. Time to escape. She flipped onto her front and scrambled to get her feet beneath her, but found herself being lifted by Nikolaos, who caught her around the ribs and set her upright as if she were light as paper.
When she got a look around, she froze. Golden fields rippled in the late afternoon sun. Trees dotted the hills. The buildings and people were all gone. The normal campus sounds — music, laughter, cars — had vanished with them. Leaves rustled, birds twittered, and the wind whispered; that was all.
Panic washed through her. Had he slipped her a drug of some kind? How? No, she'd surely been knocked out just now, and this was a dream, or a coma. But it felt so real.
"Who are you?" Her voice shook; she couldn't control it. "Where is everyone?"
He still held her by the arm, casually but firmly. "You don't believe my name is Nikolaos? It's perfectly true, I promise."
She swallowed, gaze darting around the wild terrain, her mind scrambling to recall all the details leading up to this. "And you're Greek. Sure."
"I am Greek. Honestly, I'm insulted you doubt me."
Sophie shot him another look, and now noticed the mature shrewdness in his green eyes. "I guess you're not eighteen, either."
"All right, you've got me there."
She looked around again, seeking any sign of the campus. Nothing. Just nature, and a lot of it. Something that sounded like the trumpet of an elephant echoed from far off.
Nikolaos let go of her for a moment to tap something on his cell phone. She seized her chance and bolted across the meadow. Her feet hit unsteady lumps and dips of ground, but she made decent speed. Thank goodness she was wearing her jogging sneakers rather than impractical sandals.
"Bad idea," called Nikolaos from behind her.
She slowed to reach into her pocket for her cell, thinking now might be a good time to try 911. But the phone wasn't there. Crap. She suspected she'd dropped it in the meadow, and good luck finding it in this tall grass if she had. Forget it. Escaping was more important. She put on a burst of speed.
As she reached a large oak tree, a growl brought her skidding to a halt. From the grass a lion emerged, staring at her with amber eyes. It was a huge lion, as tall as Sophie even when down on its four giant paws, its shoulder muscles piled high behind its short ears. Its fur was browner than any lion's she had seen in a zoo, and its mane was shorter.
She'd been scared already, but now pure primal terror chilled her from head to feet.
Though she might indeed have just stepped through some kind of magic wardrobe, this was not Aslan she was dealing with. From the predatory gaze and the saliva dripping from those fangs (which looked at least six inches long), she was sure this animal regarded her as lunch.
Oh, please, let this be a dream or a coma, she prayed. Otherwise I'm about to die.
Were you supposed to climb a tree when faced with a lion, or run in a zigzag pattern, or punch it in the face, or what? She couldn't recall.
Then a young man and a medium-sized dog darted in between her and the lion. The guy had curly black hair, tamer than Nikolaos', and wore all black: untucked long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and boots with laces. She couldn't see his face yet; he was staring down the lion, as was his dog. The dog's hackles bristled beneath its golden fur.
"Off you go, mate," the guy told the lion.
As if to back him up, his dog growled, and barked.
The threat worked. The lion hissed, turned tail, and bounded away into the grass.
Sophie's knees shook as her adrenaline subsided, leaving her weak.
The young man turned around to look at her. "You okay?"
He was rather lovely. Probably a couple of years older than Sophie, with olive skin, shapely mouth, and large dark eyes with black lashes and brows.
She parted her lips, found she was too upset to answer, and merely nodded.
"Please don't run," he added. "We're not going to hurt you. But the lions won't give you that guarantee. It's not safe out here."
Sophie detected a different accent in the slant of his words, Australian perhaps. She answered with another nod, more guarded this time.
Footsteps rustled up behind her, and she spun about.
But it was only Nikolaos. "Told you running off was a bad idea. But now you've met ... Wat-son." He separated the syllables playfully, as if this wasn't the guy's real name.
Watson glared at Nikolaos. "Why are you dressed like that? What is wrong with you? Did you need to wear the most conspicuous clothes on the planet?"
"It worked, obviously," Nikolaos said. "So, I shall leave you two dears alone." He sauntered to Watson, and slipped something into his palm while murmuring a few words in a foreign language, maybe Greek again.
Watson nodded and tucked the item into his jeans pocket. His dog, meanwhile, sat and gazed calmly at each human in turn. It looked like a golden retriever crossbred with something darker, perhaps some kind of shepherd dog. It also looked gentle, not the type of animal who would rip out her throat upon command. She tried to take comfort in the gaze of the friendly dog.
The two men finished their discussion, and Nikolaos turned and executed a bow in Sophie's direction. "Sophia, it has been a pleasure. I hope we meet again soon."
She didn't dignify that with a response, only a cold gaze. Yeah, hope we meet again. Thanks for kidnapping me, you lying jerkwad.
Excerpted from Persephone's Orchard by Molly Ringle. Copyright © 2013 Molly Ringle. Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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