Thunder reverberated against the entire bus and Rue shuddered visibly. Lifting a wary glance up at her windshield, she clenched her jaw as the raindrops pattered against the glass uneventfully. Three days now and the rain had not stopped. Every single day in this cursed town. Why hadn’t she listened to the weather forecast instead of her resistant optimism? Even after the last thunderstorm last night, she still had the audacity to forget her umbrella. Although it was worn and practically broken from much use, it was better than getting soaked in the cold rain.
A squeak jolted her from her wandering thoughts as the bus jerked to a stop in front of a canopy at the side of the road. There were a few people standing there, cloaked in dark jackets, huddled under the umbrellas. Smart ones, Rue muttered begrudgingly and tore her eyes away when the driver opened the door for them to enter. A cool breeze swept along the bus floor and brushed against Rue’s bare legs.
Another stupid idea. She wore a knee-length skirt and flats, her favorite maroon corduroy mary-janes. Why hadn’t she checked outside before leaving the apartment? Rue mentally slapped a palm to her face and muffled a groan.
Someone cleared their throat above her and Rue peeked through one eye, jerking upright when she noticed a tall young man with a gray hooded sweatshirt over his head and covering most of his face, droplets of rain leaving dark spots on his clothes.
The young man braced his dark, slender hands on the railing above his head as the bus shuffled on, splashing puddles along the sidewalk. Rue glanced down at the seat beside her and slowly moved her heavy backpack and book. Wordlessly, the man lowered his long frame beside her and Rue shifted in her seat so their shoulders would not touch. Not that she was unsociable. She just loved her personal space and with this giant of a man sitting beside her, his long legs practically squished in the limited area in front, she wasn’t too comfortable.
Rue looked away, a smile twitching her upper lips and she focused her gaze to the dark, ominous sky beyond the window. Another bleak Wednesday, dark puddles of cold rain.
“Who knew another day would be like this?” a deep, heavily accented voice from behind her jarred her back to reality and Rue glanced from the corner of her eyes.
Her heart jumped at the man’s chocolate brown eyes stared back at her, mirth filled in those dark depths. Rue merely blinked at him silently. He’d lowered the hood of his sweater and she mentally traced his strong face that seemed familiar for an odd reason. High forehead, straight brows, his square jaw was covered with trimmed facial hair, and his parted full lips now curled in a amused smile.
“Uh…” was all she managed to say.
He then shrugged, snapping Rue out of her brief trance. “They say this is one of the rainy cities in the U.S.” His shoulders lifted and lowered in one quick motion and Rue only responded with another silent blink. Giving her a smile, the man finally turned away again, focusing his gaze in front of him.
Rue glanced away and her brow furrowed at the ease of which he spoke to her. His accent seemed familiar but she thought nothing further than that.
She didn’t have much time to delve more on it when the bus jolted to a stop, the tires screaming in protest against the slippery slope. Rue barely managed to stop herself from banging her head against the chair in front of her. The passengers shuffled to their feet and trudged toward the only bus door. Rue stood on cue and the man beside her stepped back so she could pass in front. In response, she kept her head bowed, a ‘thank you’ lodged in her throat.
Once she stepped out from under the shelter of the bus, the patter of rain slammed hard against the cement, welcoming her with loud mockery. With a bleak stare at the passengers whipping out their trusty umbrellas, casting an array of colorful patterns below the sky, Rue reluctantly shifted from the bus.
Bracing herself for the assault of rain, Rue was surprised that only her bare legs were sprayed with the cold water. She snapped her head up and her eyes widened at a dark-green umbrella looming over her head. A dark, slender hand clutched the metal rod and Rue followed the arm to the familiar face from the bus. Him! She swallowed hard at the amused grin on his face and glanced away.
“You did not bring your umbrella?” he asked, amusement hinted in his deep voice. “Well, no matter. I will escort you to your destination.”
Rue frowned and looked back up. “You cannot. I–” His hand rested on her shoulder and gently pulled her away from the ensuing traffic of people shuffling past them, heading for their destination. Her anger outweighed her gratitude for his unyielding chivalry. Who was this man?
He chuckled, only adding kerosene to the flame in Rue. “We go to the same school. It is not a problem for me. I promise.”
The rain slapped against the nylon of his umbrella and it was then Rue realized that the dark spots had grown larger. He was getting wet while trying to be chivalrous.
Rue shook her head and stepped back from the welcoming shelter of his umbrella. “Don’t worry about it. It is my fault for not being prepared. Thank you anyway.”
Chin tilted in a stubborn stance, Rue turned away quickly and stalked across the street before he could protest, evading the oncoming cars. She didn’t notice the widened smile of the stranger, watching her from the bus-stop with his umbrella still held out.
A drenched cat was an understatement for what Rue resembled, dragging her wet shoes into the building. Her braided hair hung like wet rags over her forehead, her clothes dripping and leaving little puddles along the trail she followed. The cool draft from above only sent shivers along her already-frigid body and Rue struggled to keep her lips from chattering. She should’ve accepted that man’s umbrella.
Realizing her stray thoughts, Rue stiffened her spine and continued on. No time for self-pity. There was no time for regrets. She had too many of those and it only weighed her down, affecting her performance.
Just as she pushed open the glass door leading to the laboratory, a clink sound from behind her startled Rue.
“You’re late. And wet. Again,” a voice followed and Rue didn’t bother turning around.
“Yeah, I know,” she merely responded, shuffling to the closet. Opening it slowly, she managed a smile at the sight of her dark-green scrubs, shoes and a nylon bag hanging on a hook at the back.
“Forgot the umbrella again?” the voice was a little closer and Rue merely shrugged. “Idiot.”
Rue rolled her eyes, reaching for the bag and her scrubs. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Take your time.”
Rue turned around, catching the smug look on her friend’s painted face. Even on a rainy week like this and the girl still had time to put on layers of foundation, eccentric eye-makeup and dark lipstick.
Her colleague raised a pierced brow at her. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing…” Rue muttered diffidently and shuffled out of the door, ignoring the sharp retort behind her.
Leaning against a wall of the restroom that reeked of formaldehyde and Lysol spray, she released a heavy sigh. After three months of working here, she was still trying to get used to all of this. Being late, dodging half-hearted insults from her colleague, and not to mention having her favorite shoes drenched and possibly ruined. Living in Kent was not getting any easier by the day.
Forcing her shoulders back, Rue pushed away from the wall and walked to the lockers on the other side, quickly changing into her scrubs for the day.
Work proved to be a great feat, from answering her boss’ barking demands as well as struggling to keep her teeth from chattering loudly. Lunchtime didn’t come soon enough and her hollow stomach let her know it in ten-minute intervals after noon. Somehow, she managed and time gave her grace.
Dragging her feet across the linoleum floor, Rue wandered to the cafeteria, groaning at the hustle and bustle as employees and bosses alike stood in line, talking as though there was no sign of authority or positions mentioned. Friends and acquaintances laughed in a frazzled mess as clinking of dishes and trays against metal echoed along the walls.
Nursing an ensuing headache, Rue merely nodded while her colleague chatted on about her date last night. She, on the other hand, was more concerned with what kind of cheese they had this time. Last lunch break, the cafeteria crew gave their meek apologies for the crusty American cheese. Rue merely nodded and bypassed the entire meal. If the cheese wasn’t fresh, the meal was not meant to be eaten.
One look at the long line told Rue that her stomach would be crying loudly for the next thirty minutes. Tamping down a sigh, Rue picked up a tray and shuffled to the end of the line, peering over a woman’s shoulder to see what was on the menu.
“Smoked turkey and seasoned rice,” a familiar deep voice drifted over her head. Rue’s heart skipped a beat like it did at the bus station and she swallowed hard. The man chuckled. “We meet again.”
Rue nodded mutely, cursing herself for her stupidity. Once was enough. Why must they keep this up?
“What a coincidence that we meet again,” he drawled slowly as the line shuffled on.
This time Rue glanced behind her, eyes widening at his mirth-filled eyes dancing against the fluorescent light. Was he reading her mind?
“I am Hezekiah Gray,” he nodded with a smile as if she’d asked him that aloud. “Call me Gray.”
Rue glanced down for a moment, taking note of his black Adidas shoes before looking up again. “Ruelle,” she answered softly. “Call me Rue.”
“Rue,” he repeated and by the way he whispered her name, his eyes steady on hers made Rue shiver again, this time the cold draft not the culprit. What was it about him that made her unsteady? “Nice to meet you.” His eyes scanned her frame before returning to her face. “I see you made it here safe then.”
Rue’s cheeks warmed and she looked away, grateful the line was now moving. It was a little hard to hear his voice over the noise but she wasn’t about to ask him to continue speaking.
“May I help you?” the cafeteria lady said, her hairnet sagging over her salt and pepper curls.
Rue cast her gaze on the menu above even though she knew what the special was. “Can I have a loaded baked potato with everything but bacon bits? Broccoli on the side.”
The woman nodded and hobbled to the end of the line, dishing out a plate of the pasty-looking potato. Rue glanced behind her again, her cheeks warming when she caught Gray’s gaze. She snapped her head back to face the glass separating her from the warm food. Was he just staring at her?
“Here you go,” the woman interrupted her musings, handing her the plate of food.
“Thank you,” Rue mumbled and stepped forward just as Gray huskily ordered his meal. Deciding to retreat back to her laboratory to eat instead of facing this strange man, Rue shuffled away before Gray noticed.
Unfortunately he did and instead of following her, he merely smiled and looked away, finding a seat alone by the window.
Pressing her back against the wall, Rue waited for footsteps or a knock or his voice. Nothing. Just the constant droning of the air conditioner above her. Releasing a sigh of relief, Rue glanced down at her food and rolled her eyes. The woman had forgotten to remove the bacon bits. With a heavy sigh that reflected just how her day was going from bad to worse, Rue began picking out the offending dried meat.
On the other side of town, the clicking of metal against metal could be heard as the cloaked, dark-haired man stared out the window from the fiftieth floor of his glass paned penthouse. In the background, the soft but resonant voice of the late Pavarotti echoed along the walls of his living room. It was still raining and that was slowly grating his nerves. Plans were delayed. How he hated rainy days.
Just then, a door slammed interrupting his melancholic thoughts and the man threw a scowl over his shoulder. “Can you not knock first–what is it?” he straightened up, pushing the knife in his back pocket.
“The girl, she is here…” a stout, balding man spoke breathless as though he’d just run a marathon and lost miserably. He struggled to breathe before continuing his news report, angering the man in front of him. “Alone.”
A slow smile spread across the former’s face, all remnants of the scowl fading except for the permanent furrow of his brow. “Good…” he murmured, placing both hands on his hips. “Get them ready. We move out tonight.”
The breathless man hobbled out the door to fulfill the order and the other man turned around to face the window. Lifting to his lips a cup filled with a dark crimson liquid, the man smiled with evident pleasure.
<<Cover || Part 2>>