AUBREY SPRINTS down the track, her arms pumping and her knees lifting powerfully. She is the first to cross the finish line. Her opponents cross a second later, huffing and gasping for air. Aubrey stands statuesque, calm, and composed as if she can go another round.
Stepping onto the winner’s podium, Aubrey takes the number one spot and receives her gold medal. Her teammate, Jade, stands in the second-place position, glaring enviously at Aubrey from the corner of her eye. Aubrey turns toward Jade and smiles. Sucking her teeth, Jade steps off the podium. Aubrey looks at her other teammate and best friend, Lily. The two of them snicker among themselves.
“That girl thinks the sun comes up just to hear her crow,” Lily states.
Aubrey giggles at how Lily emulates her southern grandma, void of the accent.
The crowd disperses from the stands as Aubrey frees her feet from her track spikes. A group of children bounce excitedly, waiting for Aubrey to walk by. They wave when she reaches them. Aubrey waves back, flashing a smile, and their little faces gleam. Unfortunately, Aubrey doesn’t notice her moment of fame. Lily, straining her neck, and looking through the crowd, consumes Aubrey. “There’s my mom,” Lily announces. “Be right back.”
Lily runs into her mom’s arms. A sincere smile covers Aubrey’s face at the sight of Lily and her mother hugging. They look more like sisters with matching long black hair and striking green eyes. Watching them gives her a warm feeling but also pricks her heart. She looks away only for her gaze to land on Jade, laughing with her parents. In fact, most athletes are having a moment with their parents. Aubrey’s eyes drop. She feels a burn in her nose traveling up to sting her eyes. Puddles begin forming, obstructing her view. She refuses to allow the tears to fall. Removing the gold medal from her neck, she spreads her legs wide and bends forward, stretching her hamstrings. Maintaining movement keeps the desolation from creeping in.
Across the track, Coach Aaron speaks with an athlete who transferred from the University of Texas. “I’m ecstatic to have you; you’re an amazing athlete. However, we do things differently here.” Coach Aaron points proudly at the CSU logo on his t-shirt, an abbreviation for Centered State University. “This isn’t your typical college. We have mentors instead of professors because we care about the person you’re becoming more than the money you’ll make. Your salary is secondary to your character. We won’t tolerate any trouble.”
He doesn’t respond to Coach Aaron. Instead, his attention is on Aubrey across the track. She had first captured his focus during the track meet. Aubrey ran her races with authority and power. He couldn’t focus on anyone other than her. She moves with such easy strength that both intrigues and attracts him. The attraction feels foreign to him, much different than his attraction to previous women. Her physical isn’t what’s making him rise, though she is stunning. It is her energy. He can feel her emanating electrically despite the thousands of square feet between them. Looking away from her isn’t a choice for him. He watches her, binging her world. He observes her sitting alone while everyone else revels in family adoration. Where is her fan section, he wonders. She deserves love and praise like the other runners. He wants to give her what he feels she is due.
“Did you hear what I said?” Coach Aaron deepens his tone.
“Yes sir,” he answers swiftly, snapping out of his trance. “I guarantee you won’t have any trouble with me.”
“Good.” Coach Aaron puts his whistle in his mouth, giving it two gentle blows. “Everybody gather around. I want to introduce our newest teammate.”
As Aubrey walks over, she makes eye contact with the new teammate. They lock gazes, two pairs of matching brown eyes allured by an indescribable force. Typically, she wouldn’t flatter any male by staring, but his presence demands her attention. She wills herself to look away, but his eyes won’t release hers. For moments, she is his prisoner, unsure she wants an escape. Then, he drops his gaze, releasing her, which annoys Aubrey. She isn’t annoyed because she wants more of his attention but because she has already given too much of herself by relinquishing more than a glance.
“Everybody, this is Daniel Sane,” Coach introduces. “Let’s welcome him to the sprint squad.”
Lily leans over to whisper in Aubrey’s ear. “You know who he is, right?”
Aubrey recognizes his name. Every sports station mentioned Daniel Sane daily. He is a football luminary—most likely a first-round NFL draft pick. Aubrey frowns, curious why he is joining the track team in Ohio. Acknowledging Lily’s question, she nods. “Wonder what he’s doing here?”
The team surrounds Daniel, welcoming him. The women—particularly Jade—shower him with attention. Deciding not to participate, Aubrey waves at Daniel halfheartedly before walking away. The corners of Daniel’s mouth lift into a small smile, half offended and half amused.
Once the crowd clears, the team captain approaches Daniel. “Hey, bro. My name is Travis, but everyone calls me Trav.”
As Travis is introducing himself, students passing by interrupt them. A few girls wave and Travis responds with a cool nod. One guy acknowledges him with a quick handshake. A second guy stops to talk. “Trav! Last week’s pool party was on point. When’s the next event?”
“I’ll let you know,” Travis says before returning his attention to Daniel.
“Seems like you’re the man around here,” Daniel recognizes.
“Eh, I do what I can to bring the people together. I know all the ins and outs on campus, so if you need anything—”
“Who is she?” Daniel asks immediately. He looks directly at Aubrey, but Travis doesn’t see past Jade.
A naughty smirk settles on Trav’s face. “That’s Jade. You’ll like her.”
Daniel wags his head impatiently. “Not Jade.” He nods in Aubrey’s direction. “Her.” They watch Aubrey gather her natural curls into a bun. She slides a jacket over her sports bra, flips the hood, and hides her eyes with sunglasses.
“Nah, bro.” Travis enunciates his words intricately while wildly shaking his head. “Too much work! Stick with Jade.”
Daniel laughs at his dramatic display. “Appreciate the info.” Daniel’s gaze remains on Aubrey, further intrigued. He isn’t the type to shy away from women who are considered too much. He will always choose abundance when choosing between plenty or a lack of a woman.
Aubrey puts on her backpack and takes out her car keys.
“You aren’t coming out to eat with us?” Lily asks theatrically as if Aubrey is insulting her.
“You know you’re more than welcome, honey,” Lily’s mom adds.
Aubrey would accept the invitation to hang out with the mother-daughter duo any other day, allowing their identical personalities to entertain her. But the two of them evoke unwelcome thoughts of her mom. “Thanks, Mrs. Landers. I’m not hungry. I’ll catch up with you ladies another day.” Aubrey waves and leaves the indoor arena.
She cruises with her windows down, watching the students on campus. There is a diverse crowd of joyful people in front of the dorms. Outside of Power Hall, they eat dinner picnic-style. At Light Residence, the students sit in a large circle, playing a rowdy game. Their laughter is boisterous, causing Aubrey to laugh along with them. In front of Culture Hall, one of the CSU’s mentors teach while the students hang on to her every word. After ten minutes of driving, Aubrey pulls in front of Truth Residence Hall and parks in the student lot. She gathers her things before stepping out of her corroding Honda. She waves at the students lounging in the grass area as she enters the building.
The moment she walks inside, a pristine Audi pulls into the parking lot, taking the open space next to her car. Daniel Sane hops out of the car and starts crossing the parking lot. He scrolls through his phone as he walks, only looking up to check for vehicles. When Daniel enters the building, his phone continues to occupy his attention. It’s not until he looks up to check his surroundings that he notices Aubrey Blake in the lobby. She stands in front of the elevator, waiting for it to arrive. Daniel slides his phone into his pocket. He approaches Aubrey, needing to see her eyes again. When she had looked at him earlier, she seemed so familiar. Racking his brain, he tries to remember if he has met her. Perhaps he recognized her from television or social media? Instinctively, he knows it’s neither because she isn’t the type of woman he would forget. Needing to see her eyes up close, he stares, waiting for her to cooperate.
Feeling a presence, Aubrey turns her head. The glance turns into a doubletake when she recognizes his flawless melanin skin, perfect smile, and profound eyes. Aubrey shifts her sunglasses to the top of her head, daring to examine him so closely. Just as he had captured her before, Daniel takes her away again, away from whatever world exists around them. The force between them transports them somewhere beyond logic. They both innately know that they have a purpose together, and life is shifting them, tapping them on the shoulder, beckoning them to be receptive.
Daniel extends his hand to her. “Hi, my name is Daniel Sane.” The words glide out his mouth in a deep, gentle, serene sound. The depth in his voice matches his tall and muscular frame. The gentle tone harmonizes with his soft eyes.
She hesitates to connect with his open hand, fearful because there is too much power between them. It will be simple for him to penetrate her with just a touch. Aubrey delicately places her hand in his. His skin feels warm against her skin. The heat emitting from his body makes her shudder instead of bringing her warmth. Aubrey pulls her hand away quickly. Daniel keeps his hand open, feeling her touch linger. He wants more, but he knows it is all she will give. Daniel sees that she feels the same tapping on the shoulder as he does. Life is beckoning her too, but she’s going to fight it. Doesn’t she know her arms are too short to throw hands with divine powers?
“I know who you are,” Aubrey responds softly. “We met already.” She is somewhat offended that he forgot her so quickly.
Daniel flashes a smile that sends Aubrey’s heartbeat on a wild ride. Something about it reminds her of childhood. Maybe it’s the innocence in his eyes or the joy within. “Actually, you’re the only one of my teammates who didn’t speak to me.”
“I said hi to you,” Aubrey defends.
“Exactly. I said hi,” she reiterates.
His smile grows into a grin. He is enjoying himself. Aubrey can’t deny that she also enjoys the moment, though she keeps her face composed. She doesn’t want to smile at the man and give him the impression that he can just walk through the walls she built up and renovate the place. But then, she wonders what color he would paint the walls.
“What are you doing here?” she asks as the elevator doors open.
“I live here,” he replies, walking into the elevator. He reaches his arm through the opening as if holding the door for her.
Aubrey slowly steps into the elevator, her head spinning. She watches Daniel push the third-floor button. Her mouth drops open. “You moved into the apartment on the third floor?”
Daniel nods gently.
Aubrey takes a moment to swallow back the shock. “We’re neighbors,” she says in a shaky voice.