Sneak Peek: Chapter One of Defend

Chapter One

Jamie

I’m suffocating.

This campus sucks all the air from my lungs and prevents me from inhaling. All the assignments, all the parties, all the people, and all the pressure is a burden with two hands around my throat. What started out as a way to lose the fifty pounds I gained freshman year and soon became therapeutic for me won’t be happening on campus today like usual. I need to get away from this place.

Running around campus won’t relax me. Hell, just standing here coils my muscles and locks up my joints. I hate this place. I need to get away from here. Without a second thought, I change, grab my keys, and jog out of my dorm room. A few minutes later, I’m in my car driving. I don’t know where I’m going yet, but campus isn’t where I need to be. Overall, college isn’t too bad, I guess, but I don’t like it. I pretty much despise it.

School has never been my cup of tea. Tests? Suck. Teachers lecturing for hours on end? Sucks. Homework? Sucks. The only reason I’m in college is because I disappoint my parents enough. They’d have a fit if I didn’t go to college, and well, if they want to pay for me to earn Cs in all my classes, then they’re more than welcome to do so.

I spot someone running on a sidewalk along the road and immediately pull over. If someone else runs here, then so can I. After locking the car doors, I put my earbuds in place and turn on the music on my phone, which rests in an armband, and I take off running on the sidewalk.

Sometimes, I start out slowly before increasing to a full speed run.

Sometimes, I switch from slow to fast, slow to fast, and so on.

Sometimes I run like today. No preparation. No buildup. Just full-fledged running.

My lungs soon burn as my feet pound on the sidewalk with every step. My music drowns out the sounds of any traffic or people. I run until my entire body aches and I can’t breathe. I run until college is a distant memory and not a current nightmare.

Then, I stop. Take a deep breath. Realize I have no idea where I am or where I parked my car.

Damn it.

Time to turn around. Considering I don’t know where my car is, I take off running just like when I started, only paying more attention to my surroundings. It doesn’t help that the sky changes from a bright blue to a more subdued blue by the second as it slowly gets dark. None of this looks familiar. It should, considering I ran past it all, but I was too lost in spacing out that I didn’t pay attention to anything.

Where is my car? It should be around here somewhere. Feeling discouraged, I press my panic button, hoping to hear my alarm. It’s not until I’m further down the street that it finally goes off. I parked just past someone’s house. I turn my alarm off, but then curse when I see my front driver’s side tire.

I must’ve run over something on the way here because it’s completely flat. I sit on the curb, the tears falling before I can stop them. Great. Another problem to deal with. At least this one is fixable. Resting my head on my knees, I decide to get all the tears out now before I change my tire to my spare. These tears have wanted to trail down my cheeks for months, as I’m one of those people who likes to bottle up my emotions, but today must be the day I break.

“Ma’am?”

I jump at the sound of a man’s voice and glance up; I didn’t even hear him approach. He’s tall with dirty blond slightly wavy hair, green eyes, and a body built for ogling. Holy hell, he’s hot. I wipe my tears and point at my tire, which causes him to walk over and look at the problem. I get a good view of his backside. He wears jogging pants and a white T-shirt that makes me want to drool, which is crazy because it’s not like he’s half-naked, but he’s still insanely hot right now.

“Do you have a spare? I can change your tire for you,” he offers as he crouches to be eye level with me.

My breath is stolen at seeing him up close. He’s even more gorgeous. He’s probably thirty-five, tops, but I still wouldn’t mind him taking me home. Not at all.

“Ma’am?” he repeats. “Are you okay?”

“It’s Jamie.”

He holds out his hand. “Brent.”

I shake his hand and nearly swoon. It’s a rough, callused hand. Good lord. “I know how to change it,” I manage to say, not yet releasing his hand.

“Offer still stands. I can even fix your tire if it needs patching or get it replaced with a new one if you want. My shop isn’t too far from here.” A shiver runs through me. Even his voice is sexy. “Come on, Jamie.” He pulls me up since we’re still holding hands and I’m thankful because the cold concrete under my butt was really starting to get to me. It may be March, but I get hot when I run no matter the time of year, so I dressed in shorts and a sports bra. “Let’s get your spare and I’ll change your tire,” Brent says, taking over the situation.

We get everything he needs from my trunk and I stand off to the side in front of my car, at Brent’s orders, while he begins to change my tire.

“Are you okay, Jamie?” he asks me again with a sideways glance.

I nod. “Rough, long day. The tire pushed me over the edge. You can really fix it?”

“Yeah. I’ll do it right now if you want.”

It’s six in the evening, so I have to wonder if there are any reasons behind him offering to help me after business hours, other than simply being nice.

“That’s my house right there.” He points at the house whose driveway I parked closest to. “But I started my run from the shop, so I don’t have my truck. I can drive us back to the shop, or I can give you the address and run back if that makes you more comfortable.”

He’d run back to his shop instead of riding with me if it makes me uncomfortable to have him in my car? That’s both crazy and sweet. And he called me ma’am, which would normally be a turn-off because I reserve that term for older women, but when he says it? I’ll repeat, swoon.

“You want to do it today?” I ask.

He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter to me. If you want it fixed today, I’ll do it for you. It’ll be one less thing for you to worry about on your rough day.”

“Thank you.”

He looks up at me and smiles. “Your day should end on a good note, Jamie.”

He goes back to work and we don’t speak. He offers to let me drive to his shop, but I’m not too keen on driving with a spare—I hate doing it—so I hand over my keys. This could be stupid to do with a stranger, but I’m too tired and stressed to care. While in the car, I remove my armband and my earbuds from my phone, slipping my phone into my pocket.

We don’t speak until Brent has my car in one of the bays and working on my tire. “You trust too easily,” he says, glancing over at me while I walk around and look at all the different tools and machines. “What if I was a serial killer or something?”

“You’re too hot to be crazy.”

He laughs but shakes his head. “There are real threats out there. You should be more careful.”

“I should,” I agree. He isn’t crazy or a serial killer. Now that my emotions are contained, I focus on Brent. “Does your girlfriend mind that you’re working late?”

“No girlfriend.”

“Wife?” I question, glancing over at him to see a smile play on his face.

“No wife, no girlfriend, no friend with benefits, Jamie.”

I smile because he’s as free as a bird. “Do you always offer to help women when you see them crying on the sidewalk?”

“Only the pretty ones.”

I laugh. “What will I owe you for this?” I ask as he puts my tire back on my car.

“It’s on the house.”

With a frown, I walk over to him. “No, really. What do I owe you?” He didn’t have to change my tire, bring me here and do this tonight, and he definitely deserves to be paid.

“Nothing, Jamie.”

“Do you normally work for free?”

“Making an exception for you.”

I fold my arms over my chest. I don’t like this. It’s nice, but he deserves something. Soon, my car is all ready to go. I lean against the hood, in no rush to leave, and Brent stands in front of me, wiping his hands with a red rag.

“Can I take you out to eat as a thank you?” I ask.

My heart falls as he shakes his head and tosses the rag onto a nearby counter. “No, but I will be more than happy to take you out.”

“Right now?” I grin as he nods, but then I glance down at myself with a frown. While I may be comfortable running out in public like this, I wouldn’t go into a restaurant wearing just a sports bra and shorts.

“Stay right there.” Brent disappears toward an office and returns a moment later with a white T-shirt, much like the one he’s wearing. “Will this make you feel better?”

“Yes, thank you.” Slipping on his T-shirt does crazy things to me. I almost shiver again and it takes every ounce of willpower not to inhale heavily because damn, does it smell good. It has this manly scent tinged with the smell of the shop, but it’s not too overpowering. It’s too big, so I tie a knot at my hip.

“Okay if I drive?” Brent asks.

“Sure.”

He shakes his head as he holds out his hand for me. “Way too trusting, Jamie.”

“Do you want me to say no and go home?” I ask as we walk outside into the frigid air and to a truck.

“No, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

He opens my door for me.

I repeat. He opens the door for me. He even closes it once I’m in the passenger seat! Where did this man come from and can I keep him? It hits me that this isn’t the first time. He opened the door for me when I was getting into my car on the way here, too. I wonder if I waited, if he’d open the door for me to get out.

“Any particular place you’d like to go?” he asks.

“You can pick.”

I sneak glances at him, wondering how old he truly is. I’ll be twenty-two in four months and this is my last semester in hell—I mean, college. A man like Brent might want nothing more than a roll between the sheets. He looks good enough that I might be okay with that, especially if he can be a distraction from the stress college gives me.

At heart, I’m a hopeless romantic; I want the kind of love where it consumes me. Where even his annoying flaws cause me to love him a little more. Where I would fight for him and for us. Where he would be able to calm me in the simplest of ways when I’m stressed. Where I’d feel like I’m living in a fairytale, even the road bumps feeling worth it because I’m with the person I love with every breath I take.

But I’d take a fling until I could find that love if that’s all Brent offers. Then again, I’m getting ahead of myself. All he’s doing right now is taking me to dinner, specifically to a diner that serves nothing but breakfast food, and as soon as I realize that’s the type of restaurant we’re at, I realize breakfast for dinner is exactly what I want.

The place is surprisingly busy, but there’s an empty booth we’re able to claim. Once the waitress takes our order, I pick up my drink and ask Brent what’s been on my mind the entire ride over.

“So, how old are you?”

I take a sip as he answers, “Thirty-nine, but I turn forty soon.”

The drink gets caught in my throat and I choke with surprise. “Seriously?” I ask as I cough. There’s eighteen years between us? How is this possible?

There’s a small smile on his face. “How old did you think I was?”

“Thirty-five at the most, late twenties at the least. I’m only twenty-one; I turn twenty-two in July.”

His face pales and he shifts in his seat. I think this dinner just went to hell and we haven’t even been served yet. Brent clears his throat. “I have kids, a daughter and a son. Twenty and sixteen, and they haven’t had their birthdays yet this year.”

“Oh.” Wow. That’s crazy.

“Yeah. Oh.”

“Well, how about we forget those little facts?” When he nods in agreement, I ask, “Do you run every day?”

“No. Three to four days a week. It clears my head, keeps me in shape, and makes me feel good. You?”

The waitress drops off my waffles and eggs and his pancake platter as I answer him. “Every day if I can. College is...” I shudder at the thought of that horrid place.

“That bad, huh?”

“I can’t stand it. Did you go to college? Did you like it?”

“My dad had my brothers and me working in the shop as soon as he felt we were capable of helping. Right after high school, I found out my then-girlfriend and now ex-wife was pregnant. I needed money right then to support them and staying home to work in the shop was the best way to do that. I eventually went to learn more than what my dad taught me, and now, my brothers and I own the shop while my parents are retired and living in Florida.”

“Do you enjoy what you do?” It sounds like he had no choice but to do the work he does now.

Brent nods. “I didn’t care for it as a teenager, but it grew on me. Now I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”

“That’s good. How old are your brothers?”

He grins. “Thinking of trading me in already?”

“Nope,” I say with a smile. “I already know I picked the right one. I won’t get rid of you yet.”

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