When Madison Bloom ends up at the local community college and meets the attractive, yet mysterious, Nathan Bradley, her world takes a dramatic turn. With his passion for art, especially the Impressionists, and their passion for each other, Nathan seems to be the perfect guy. But Nathan has a secret life and a dangerous connection to the underground world of art theft. Art thieves weren’t an issue until he met Madison, but she’s determined to join his world.
What Madison doesn’t realize is that the closer she gets to Nathan, the easier it is for his enemies to use her to get what they want. And it might be too late for one of them…
Great. Another boring syllabus to put in my backpack. It wasn’t bad enough that I’d ended up at the local college for one semester, but to make it worse, I’d enrolled at the last minute and had to take whatever classes were left over. Marriage and Family. Ugh. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t think of anything worse than taking a class that would expound the virtues of marriage. Marriage was definitely the last thing on my relevancy list.
Hesitantly, I looked around the room. I figured, and was right, that there were be “types” in the class. In the front row, there was the young woman with the endless smile, sporting a shiny engagement ring. Of course. In the back row, cuddled into one-and-a-half chairs was The Couple. Wonderful. Next to me, was the really tall guy in work-out clothes, probably on the basketball team. I’d bet anything he needed to raise his GPA and obviously thought this was a blow-off course because he was already asleep. He leaned against the wall and stretched his long, dark chestnut legs under the table, I had to pull my feet back under my chair. Maybe I should wake him up, but I couldn’t think of a good way to do it.
I tried to focus on the instructor’s words, “I’ve been happily married for thirty years….” Could this be worse? Tune it out. Tune it out.
As soon as possible, I would start checking for openings in other classes. Any other class. Surely someone would drop something in the agriculture department. Maybe I could learn to like country music…probably not. Or better yet, I could torture myself with a math class. Biology: I would try to get into a biology class; dissecting a frog right now would be better than this. Frog guts—I would think about that pleasant thought for a moment.
Yuck, I could hear The Couple whispering behind me. They kissed. The girl giggled quietly. Oh my gosh, frog guts, frog guts, frog guts!
I had to get out of here. Grabbing my backpack without looking up, I started for the door.
That’s when fate decided to trip me.
I didn’t even see him coming.
Trying to make a quick break for it, I hurried out the door without looking. He was reading his schedule, late for class. We collided. My books hit the floor and my cell phone fell apart and scattered.
I looked up, ready to blame him for not watching where he was going. He had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen in my life! Wow! No words for that, I just tried to breathe normally. Then he smiled. It was the most incredible smile ever! His smile matched his eyes perfectly.
That’s when I went brain dead. I couldn’t think. The witty sarcasm that usually rolled so easily from my mouth was gone. I think I smiled back, but I’m not sure. We both scrambled around, gathering stuff off the floor. I grabbed my own phone from where it had skidded away.
“So sorry,” he said as he handed me books. “I take full responsibility for this tragedy.” He gestured toward the door to the Marriage and Family class. “Are you in this class too?”
“Um, no, not really. I have to change my schedule,” I half explained, trying to avoid staring too deeply into his eyes that were as beautiful as a stormy summer sky.
“That’s too bad,” he answered wryly. I wasn’t sure how to interpret that. He was probably relieved. “It would be nice to kind of know someone,” he added. “Maybe we’ll bump into one another again?” His voice was dangerously smooth.
“Sure.” That’s all I said: sure. I’m such an idiot! Why didn’t I say something like: I’d love to, or When? It really didn’t matter. I was only going to be here for one semester. I tried to console myself. Totally no point in getting attached, and he probably was all looks and no brains, anyway. No one with eyes like that, a smile like that, and the deliberately almost-messy-but-perfect dark hair could be smart too.
The computer lab was full, so I killed some time in the library. Nothing interesting there. Then I saw some kids from my old high school and ducked behind a row of book-filled shelves before they saw me. I knew that I would eventually have to explain why I was still here in Sedalia, Missouri. Everyone knew that all I ever wanted to do was to get out of here.
But here I am, I thought dismally. The middle of nowhere. Some people go to New York City or Hawaii, not me. I never go anywhere exciting. And I was literally nowhere. I didn’t even know where I would be spending the night. Mom wanted me to stay with her at Grandma’s and Dad wanted me to stay with him, probably so he didn’t have to cook. All of my post-graduation plans had fallen through when my parents separated. It’s not like I hadn’t see it coming, but still…
Even though I tried to live in the moment and not think about family problems, they seemed to fill my mind and suck all the fun out of everything. My day was off to a memorable start. I guess that meant the whole semester was off to a memorable start. I was deep in thought when the phone rang and I jumped so much that I knocked several books off the shelf next to me. I distractedly checked the phone while I collected the books and since the number looked familiar, I answered it.
“Hello,” I whispered, so the librarians wouldn’t freak.
“What are you doing after the class that you’re not taking?” The voice on the other end was smooth with a hint of humor behind it.
“Um, who is this?” It was him! My heart was racing and I very unsuccessfully tried to control my voice. How did he get my number? Was he a stalker? That would make him the best-looking creep in the world, but still creepy.
“Most people call me Nathan. Does that work for you?”
“Okay Nathan, how’d you get my number?” I demanded firmly.
“Obviously you did or you couldn’t have called me just now.” My voice rose a little, so I walked toward the library exit.
“Actually, I didn’t call you because you haven’t given me your number yet,” he replied calmly.
“Try to make some sense, Nathan. I have too much on my mind for a brain teaser.”
“First tell me your name.” He was having fun at my expense.
“Most people call me Madison. That will have to work for you, because that’s all I’m going to tell you.”
“Nice to meet you, Madison. Technically, I called myself,” the velvety voice chuckled softly.
“What?” I looked more closely at the phone I was holding. It looked a lot less scruffy than mine, but in all the chaos, I hadn’t noticed. “Oh!” Our phones had gotten switched when we collided in the hall. “Do you want to meet someplace so we can switch back?”
“That works for me.” His voice was suddenly non-stalker-like again, now that I understood the situation.
“When and where?” I asked, happy to think that I had a second chance to make a better impression on this extremely good-looking guy. He also sounded intelligent. Looks and smarts.
“How about class on Wednesday?”
“What? That’s in two days! Are you crazy? I need my phone!”
“I promise I’ll take good care of it,” he said. Then he hung up! Just like that!
Over the next several hours, all I got was my own voice mail. The more I tried to call him, knowing that he had my phone and that he just refused to answer it, the angrier I got. Nathan was definitely a frustrating person…if that was really his name.
My next plan of attack was to email him through the school’s system. I got online and went to the class website. I scrolled down until I found someone with the first name of Nathan. There he was, that had to be him: Nathan Bradley. So maybe it really was his name. I’d find out soon, either way. My carefully worded email was sent about ten seconds later.
Most of my other classes were dull, with the exception of painting in my Design class. Art was the one thing that I could always do well. Between classes, I saw The Couple again. They were sitting together sharing lunch, whispering back and forth, and staring into each other’s eyes. How humiliating: didn’t they know how ridiculous they looked? Frog guts.
The first time I had a chance, I checked my email. Nothing. So Nathan was going to avoid me. Well, I wouldn’t let that stop me. I would be persistent, because I had no intention of waiting until Wednesday to get my phone back. The strange thing was that he didn’t seem to feel the same way. Why didn’t he care if he got his phone back or not? Impetuously, I sent him another email and asked him why he didn’t want his phone back.
I got on Facebook to see if I could find him. When I logged on, there was a notification. It said Madison Bloom is now friends with Nathan Bradley. This guy was all nerve! I never locked anything on my phone, so he had access to my Facebook account, my email account, all my phone numbers, my Amazon account…you name it, he could get to it. He had sent a friend request to himself from my Facebook account and then confirmed it on his. I was ticked off!
My anger wasn’t enough to stop my curiosity, though. First, I checked his phone to see what he had left open. Nothing, of course. Oddly, there wasn’t much there. Second, I went to his Facebook page to snoop. No, not snoop: I was investigating. I needed to know more about this guy.
What could I learn from his Facebook account? He had almost a zillion friends. I was his most recent friend, big surprise. He had posts in foreign languages. I saw his favorite television show (White Collar) and his favorite movies (Bourne Identity). Okay, so his taste in music wasn’t bad either.
I have to admit that I spent a little extra time looking at his photos. Apparently, this guy liked to try lots of new things, like weird food, surfing, and rock climbing. It was hard not to notice that the same girl kept reappearing with him. She was pretty. So what. They weren’t tagged, so I couldn’t find out who they were, probably for the best, but who cares anyway? All I wanted from this guy was my phone.
Eventually, I had to decide where I was going to spend the night. If I went to my dad’s, I’d have to sleep on the couch. It was a hide-away, so at least I’d technically be sleeping on a bed, but really a pain to open, so I knew I would never get around to folding it out. If I went to my grandma’s house, I’d have to face the inquisition. The sleeping arrangements were better, but not worth it. I decided to go to my dad’s little apartment. It was a lose-lose situation. Let’s face it, either way I would disappoint someone. What a pleasant way to end the day, I thought sarcastically.
As I drove away from campus in my beater car—hoping it didn’t break down anywhere obvious—I saw Nathan getting into a very expensive sports car with a very attractive blond. The bright yellow car had gull-wing doors that opened up like the DeLorean in Back to the Future. I recognized the Mercedes symbol flaunting itself in broad daylight. Figures. Some people just have it easy. The rest of us live in reality. Although I could admit that he was very attractive, I didn’t have to like him as a person. After all, he was a petty thief who had stolen my phone. I really wanted it back.
My irritation grew as I drove, a bad combination. It made me want to blast the horn at the old lady in front of me who slowed down at the green light. I took a small detour to the grocery store for a chocolate fix. Maybe a handful of M&Ms would help.
Finding a parking space proved to be a nuisance. I patrolled the lot once, then I noticed a good spot, but some big pickup truck with dual tires was parked way over the line, taking up two spaces. My temper flared again. How inconsiderate! Why would anyone buy a big truck like that if they couldn’t even park it between the lines? Why would they take up two spaces toward the front of the lot? Someone had already parked very closely next to them on the passenger side. The truck should have parked further away if he didn’t want company. It made me feel a little better to squeeze my crappy car into the 2/3 of a space that was left over on the driver’s side. That would teach them! I hoped they got done shopping before me and had to climb into their truck through the back window.
As I marched smugly into the store, the phone vibrated in my pocket. Instinctively, I pulled it out to see who the text was from. Great. It was from me. Or Nathan, rather. I read it and felt my face get hot. It said, ‘Nice parking job.’ My smugness instantly melted into a puddle of embarrassment. I didn’t turn around. Somewhere out there a shiny yellow SL63 AMG Mercedes roadster was cruising the same parking lot where I had vindictively parked my crippled piece of metal into a partial space.
Could this day possibly get better? I grabbed a large bag of plain M&Ms. That wasn’t going to be enough. I added a carton of chocolate ice cream with chocolate chunks of some sort to my purchase. While I waited to check out, I picked up a Twix bar. I really hate the way grocery stores market impulse items like that. That’s probably why they only have two people checking when they have twenty-seven other lanes closed. The customers pile up and buy more stuff because they’re bored or hungry. Or desperate, like me.
The phone vibrated again, another message. ‘Going to a chocolate fest?’ My day just got better; not. I looked around, but didn’t see anyone I recognized. He was back to creeper status.
I sent him a text asking him to please trade phones with me, that I would meet him in front of the store in five minutes. He texted back, ‘See you Wed.’ Definitely a jerk too. I stuffed half a Twix bar into my mouth.
When I got back to the apartment, Dad was surprised to see me. Apparently, he and Mom had left several messages on my phone, some with threats of taking it away if I didn’t call back. Nathan had worked that out for them. Maybe Dad secretly hired Nathan to take my phone. That thought made me laugh a little. Nathan as an international jewel thief or something: that would explain his crazy ninja skills at the store. He must be a highly successful thief to afford that car!
“Hungry, Madison?” Dad asked. “I’ll take you out for Chinese.” I nodded eagerly. The best of both worlds: no inquisition and no cooking. Maybe this wasn’t a lose-lose.
Dad and I sang Paul Simon songs on the way to the restaurant. He seemed so carefree when he sang, but the stress of the past several months had taken a toll. White and gray were sprinkled generously through his once dark hair. His tanned face was more lined than it had been just a few months ago. He didn’t tell as many lame jokes. I could tell he was struggling, but for a few minutes at least he was relaxed.
Most of Tuesday passed quietly, especially since I didn’t have my phone. I thought it was kind of weird that Nathan didn’t get any phone calls. None at all. I still wanted my phone back and had to find him to get it. So I was glad to have an excuse to go to campus when Mom and Dad started arguing. They were trying to work out details of the “new arrangement.” Why couldn’t they just say it? They were both miserable, but both so stubborn!
Before I parked my junk heap, I took a couple laps around the main parking lot in front. It was late afternoon, but the car I was looking for would be easy to spot. Nothing in front. I went around to the back lots. When I spotted the vibrant yellow roadster, my stupid heart skipped a beat. I reminded myself that all I wanted was my phone. Nothing else. After all, anyone who drove such an ostentatious car to this school had to be a snob. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the SL63 AMG Mercedes was over $140,000! I’d looked it up online. But why was he holding my phone hostage? He could probably buy a million of them.
I had to guess which building he might be in, so I opted for the humanities building where most of my classes were. All I wanted was my phone. Just my phone. So why did I check my reflection in the glass door before I went in?
I walked up and down every hall. I peeked in classrooms, checked the library at least a dozen times, went to the food court, the gym, walked around the track once, then back empty-handed. No phone, no Nathan, no homework, so nothing else to do.
As I was prying the car door open, Nathan’s phone vibrated in my pocket. The message read: ‘Drive carefully. See you tomorrow.’
I heard the engine of his flashy car. I turned just in time to see him speed out of the parking lot, tires squealing. Someone in a black sedan pulled out from between two buildings and followed him. I hoped it was an unmarked police car and that Nathan got a big, fat ticket. That would serve him right.