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The bench before me appears like an oasis in a desert.

I drop my exhausted body to its surface and tilt my head upwards. While the sky has clouded over, the air doesn't seem cool enough for me to be shivering in my black short-sleeve top. Goosebumps prick my arms, and I tighten them across my chest, wiggling my toes in my sneakers. Releasing a shuddering sigh, I wrap my arms around my legs and rest my forehead on top of my knees.

Now alone, I replay that moment over again, hating the way I reacted. Because that's the way I always was in high school; the hurtful words came and went, but I never said anything, hoping someone else would defend me—a professional coward, at best.

School was one thing and the personal notes another, but getting exposed in front of every girl at this camp?

Oh, it's on.

That is, when I get rid of this headache.

I sense a presence before me with my eyes closed. Defying my curious nature, I don't even look up; I have no desire to talk to anyone. The person walks a little closer, enveloping me in a cloud of fresh cologne.

"Are you okay?"

The voice is unfamiliar and makes me snap my head up. In front of me stands Austin, gazing at me with sympathetic blue-green eyes. I've never talked to him before and find myself stammering my way to an answer.

"Y-yeah, I'm fine. I-I was just about to head out."

He presses his lips into a firm line and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans, glancing over at the trainer dorm about fifteen feet away. Out jogs Axel to catch up to Austin, seeming excited for whatever they were planning on doing, clad in dark jeans and a gray cotton shirt. He stops in front of us, glancing between his friend and his poorly trainee.

"Hey, I'll get a head start, and you can meet us at the bar later," Austin tells him. Nudging his chin to my paling face, he adds, "You might wanna see what's up with your girl." He slaps him on the shoulder and then walks in the direction of the parking lot.

Your girl...?

Axel crouches down before me and rests one hand on the leftover bench space. "Whitney, what's wrong?"

"I think I just have a cold." I wipe my hands down my face and swallow, momentarily easing the soreness. I smile weakly as I add, "Serves you right for throwing me into the freezing ocean, I guess."

"Oh, come on, that's just an old wives' tale." When he notices my shivering front, his face softens. "Hey, go and rest, okay? Better to deal with the symptoms early."

"Right," I say and dig my hands into the bench to push myself up. "Is there a restroom I can use real quick? I don't wanna walk all the way across the camp right now."

He leads me through the front entrance of the trainer dorm, the end opposite to his room. He points to the bathroom several paces to the right, and I get going. He stops me with a hand on my shoulder before I can push the door open.

"I'll be in my room for a bit. Stop by before heading out."

I nod again and duck into the bathroom, trying not to read too much into the fact he delayed getting drinks with his friends to make sure I'm okay. I finish my business and then stare at myself in the mirror, grimacing at the reflection. My eyelids hang over my dull eyes, and my face has lost most of its color. Maybe it's just the poor lighting.

As if he didn't invite me himself, I anxiously walk down the hall to his room. I stop in his doorway and shoot him a smile, but the corners of my lips feel heavy as they curve upwards.

"You can come in, you know," he says, shoving his phone into his pocket and walking to the doorway. He ducks his head down, adding, "I'll keep a distance, if that helps."

I look away, hating that he thinks my mind went in that direction. "Do you mind if I sit down for a second?"

He nods and closes his door and pulls back his desk chair for me. I drop down to the cushion, legs feeling like putty. Eyeing his desk, I notice the layout has slightly changed, stack of papers replaced by a small, worn-out book lying on top of a sealed blue box. I peer closer to read the white label in the top right corner.

There's a name: Christian Chandler.

Why do I feel like I've heard that name before?

Axel notices my eyes on the book. "The Great Gatsby. It was my dad's favorite novel, mine too."

Of course, that's his father's name. Separate, the names are unnoteworthy, as I've met one too many Christians in my lifetime, yet together they evoke strange, faded memories. Whether I've heard or read that name before, I don't know.

"I read that book twice in high school," I say, smiling at the only positive memory from English class. His copy is rugged, as if it had received too much love over the years. I sigh and turn back to him. "I'm going to head out, Axel. You should go enjoy your Friday night."

He shakes his head. "A couple drinks can wait. Really."

I nod and stand up, regretting the sudden move instantly. Feeling all the blood rush from my head, I grab on to the wall behind me for some stability and try to ignore the wave of nausea that ripples through my empty stomach.

"Are you okay, Whit?" There it is again. He hurries across the room, arms held out before him. I try to push him away, but he wraps one arm around my lower back and holds me up against his front with a firm grip. He brushes away some of strands of hair sticking to my mouth. "Do you usually feel like this when you get a cold?"

"I barely get sick," I say, my voice scratchy, "but when I do, I'm worse than a man."

Axel knows better than to let me go when I try to take a step forward on my own. I slide down the wall to the ground, seeing the world in pixels. He says something, but my mind drowns it out, along with the rest of this room.

One blink, and everything fades away.


I feel disoriented when my eyelids open, almost as though I'm in an extension of a hallucinatory dream. I have to force my brain to remember where I am: Axel's room.

No wait, Axel's arms. He kneels beside me, a hand behind my head shielding me from the hard ground. The other hovers just above my left cheek, bearing the same wariness plastered all over his face.

"How long have I been out?"

"Only a few seconds," he says. That definitely felt more like an hour. He cups my cheek with his left hand, the surface feeling icy against my flushed cheek. Then he touches my forehead, assessing me with the care of a worried mother and interest of a physician. "You definitely have a fever. And need a drink of water for sure."

"No wonder I feel like hell." I groan and drag my fingers over my chapped lips, not even remembering the last time I had a full glass of water today. Forgetting that his hand still grips my cheek, I wrap my fingers around his wrist. I almost pull it away until I realize this feels nice. His arms are so manly, veiny and rock solid when flexed. That feeling only lasts a few seconds when he pulls his hand away to grab an unopened bottle of water. "Am I just gonna lie on your floor until morning? Won't lie, it's oddly comfy."

Without asking for permission this time, he brings his forearm to the backs of my knees and hauls me up into his chest. I lay my head on his shoulder, inhaling his signature cologne scent. He sets me down on the edge of his bed and sits down a couple inches away. His hand reaches for my hair again, and he brushes away a few strands. I don't pull away, loving the fiery touch of his fingers.

The fingers dancing against my jawline slip into my hair, getting lost in the thick locks. He leans forward and hesitates, his breath warm against my face. Then without more deliberation, he brushes his lips against my forehead, in what I could call a kiss. If it wasn't, a wave of pleasure wouldn't have rushed through me, awakening my tired and aching body.

"Thank you," I murmur, tilting my head up. "Let's say I didn't need fainting in front of a bunch of people to add to my list of miseries today."

"No need to thank me," he says softly, looking away as he adds, "just doing my job."

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