Twenty-year-old Dahlia hates the life that she is forced to lead. But the time is quickly coming when she must make a decision that will shape the rest of her life. She's set her sights on Jace. He is someone her family will approve of, someone that will finally gain her acceptance among her people. Then Cam comes into her life, making her question what she assumed was her inevitable destiny, giving her hope that she might be able to lead the normal existence that she longs for. But fate has its own plan for Dahlia. Now she has to find courage she didn’t know she possessed to fight for her own future.
Cam Taylor watched, amused, as Dahlia stumbled and nearly launched her lunch tray into a table full of brainiacs. She was new—she had only been working at Grave's Community Center Hospital for a couple weeks. Cam had noticed her right away. She had a headful of curly, brown hair that fell to her waist in the back, pinned up on top with an unfashionable barrette. The barrette was studded with sparkling rhinestones, excepting the large center stone, which was missing. She wore no makeup; her pale face was clear and blemish-free. An unfortunate, brown floral pattern as outdated as a rotary-dial phone covered her lumpy, brocade dress which was at least two sizes too big for her. She was tall, gangly, awkward—the biggest klutz Cam could remember seeing—and he was smitten.
He watched as Dahlia finally slid to safety on a bench, once again nearly dropping her lunch as it clunked to the table. She laughed at herself, but the other women at the table, mostly nursing assistants, met her laughter with sneers. They exchanged meaningful glances, then stood as one, leaving without speaking a single word. Cam felt a moment's anger at the unfeeling women as he saw Dahlia's face fall. He decided to go sit with her himself, no matter how much crap he might get for it.
As Cam moved toward Dahlia's table, she turned her attention from her tray toward Jace McMahon, who sat across the lunchroom. With a wistful sigh and dreamy eyes, she propped her chin in her hands, a smile curving the corners of her mouth upward. Cam stopped in his tracks.
Jace was an orderly like Cam. He was athletic, muscular, and better looking than most of the stars in Hollywood. The most popular guy at GCC, Jace was arrogant and cruel and loved by all the women anyway. Cam suspected most of the other guys really hated him, as Cam did, but they wanted to be near him anyway, hoping his charm and luck with the women would rub off on them. If nothing else, being Jace's buddy got them girls who would do anything to get closer to Jace, even if it meant dating one of his lesser friends.
Cam and Jace had attended the same high school. At that time, they'd been best friends. Back then, no one could touch the popularity of the two tall, good-looking, enigmatic boys. Then Cam found out exactly what Jace was.
Cam had distanced himself from Jace after that, making him something of an outcast his senior year. He didn't care. Being on his own was better than being part of Jace's world. He'd hoped GCC would be different, even with Jace there, but work turned out to be nothing more than an extension of high school. Jace was still the star. Cam sometimes wondered why no one thought it strange that Jace, with his athletic prowess, was working at GCC to pay his way through school instead of attending a prestigious college on a fantastic scholarship. But Jace knew. Not only poor grades, but also the thing that created the rift between Cam and Jace had caused colleges to run the other way when it came to Jace McMahon.
Cam glanced over at Jace, jealousy and anger burning within his chest. Tabitha Heron, who now went by the ridiculous nickname of Tabby, had draped herself across Jace. Tabby was absolutely beautiful, the perfect counterpoint to Jace's good looks. Until Cam's falling out with Jace three years earlier, Tabby had been Cam's girlfriend. Then Jace pursued her relentlessly, just to prove he could take her if he wanted. And prove it he did. Jace even talked her out of accepting an admission offer from Harvard to join him at Grave's University. Even now, when Jace treated her with nothing but disdain and kept her dangling at his whim, Tabby refused to admit Cam was right about him. She hardly needed to work to pay her way, not with her wealthy family, and yet she'd even followed him here, to work a crappy job as a receptionist for crap pay.
They deserved one another.
And, now, the newest object of Cam's attention was drooling over his nemesis. Dahlia didn't have a shot with him; anyone could see that. Unless Cam managed to hook up with her—then he'd bet Jace would turn his sights on the strange, new girl. Cam would see Jace burn before he allowed him to hurt the fascinating Dahlia.
* * * * *
Dahlia stood in the freezing wind, watching as Jace McMahon climbed into his fancy, red Mustang. He turned the key, the engine growling fiercely as he peeled out of his parking spot, cutting off an old, rusty beater and nearly running over a group of interns. She knew well enough Jace was not exactly a kind, caring person, but she also knew what he could do for her. He was perfect—beautiful, graceful, popular. In other words, everything she was not.
Dahlia turned to see Cam Taylor standing next to her, smiling at her. She glanced behind her to double check, but as no one else was there, she supposed he must be speaking to her.
"Hey," she said back, wondering why someone like Cam would speak to her on purpose. Cam was every bit as good-looking as Jace. But where Jace was dark—dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin—Cam was light. His blond hair was practically white, his eyes translucent blue, his skin nearly as pale as Dahlia's. He, too, was graceful and beautiful, and popular among many of the nurses, aides, and volunteers. But he did not have the power Jace had to transform her.
"Need a ride home?" Cam asked.
"Uh . . ." Dahlia hesitated. She didn't really want anyone to know where she lived. The wind chose that moment to blow its icy fingers across her exposed legs. She shivered at the sensation, and Cam laughed.
"Come on. I can't have you freeze to death on my watch." When she still hesitated, he held his hand out toward her. "It's just a ride, Dahlia."
She looked at his extended hand, wondering vaguely how he knew her name. This was one of those socially awkward situations she had no idea how to handle. Should she take his hand?
"Okay," she said, turning toward the parking lot. As she took the first step, she managed to put her foot onto one of the few spots with a disc of ice clinging to the cement, and squealed as she felt her foot slide away. She prepared for the pain that would come with the fall.
But then Cam grabbed her by the elbow, halting her descent.
"Whoa, there," he said, steadying her. "Gotta be careful of these slippery steps."
Humiliated, Dahlia looked up at him. "Thanks," she mumbled.
"Yup," Cam answered. He kept hold of her elbow all the way to the car. Once inside the vehicle, she fastened the seat belt—one of the few devices that could guarantee her safety and that she had full control over, so used always—he turned the heat on high, directing all the vents her way. She wondered idly whether Jace would have done the same if she were seated in his Mustang rather than in Cam's Honda.
"So . . . how do you like working at GCC?" Cam asked when the silence began to stretch out uncomfortably.
"It's the same as any other job, I guess," Dahlia said.
Cam couldn't argue that point. "Oh, yeah? Is that a bad thing, or good?"
Dahlia shot him a look as if to say You're kidding, right? and Cam smiled.
"I understand," he said,but somehow Dahlia doubted he truly did understand. She doubted that Cam, with his golden looks and infectious smile, had ever been shunned, that he had ever sat at a table only to have others leave just to avoid being seen with him, that he had ever been called doggy, beastly, or nerdy. She doubted he'd ever looked around a room and known the only people who would accept him as a friend were those who completely understood all those things.
"Turn here," she said, directing him up Draper Avenue. He lifted his brows a little at the turn, but didn't say anything. When they reached the end of the street, she said, "You can stop here."
He looked out the window. With surprise in his voice, he said, "This is where you live?"
Dahlia knew how it looked. The house was the largest in the neighborhood—ostentatious, overbearing, shouting wealth at the tops of its lungs. She really wished her family knew how to blend in.
She waited for the sarcasm, the cutting remarks, but, instead, he simply said, "Nice place."
"Um, okay . . . thanks for the ride, I guess," she said, pulling on the door handle—to no avail.
"Oh, here, let me get that. It sticks sometimes." He leaned across her to grab the handle, and Dahlia flattened herself against the seat. She'd never been this close to a boy she wasn't related to . . . and definitely never this close to one who smelled so delicious. For one crazy second, she had the urge to reach up and—
"There you go," Cam said as the door swung open and a wintery blast of air drew her attention from her fantasy.
Dahlia climbed out, then looked back. "Thanks again."
He gave her a charming smile in answer. "See you tomorrow," he said as she slammed the door. With a wave, he turned his car in a wide U and drove away. Dahlia watched him go, and then, with dread, turned back toward her house—or as she'd come to think of it, the "monstrous mausoleum."