Fighting Fate

By: Linda Kage

Chapter One

PAIGE ZUKOWSKI DRESSED in the dark, her fingers fumbling over the buttons on her blouse. She tried a breathing technique to calm her rattled nerves. Inhale. Hold. One, two, three. Exhale. Hold. One, two, three. Inhale…

The buttons were mismatched. She frowned and started over, forgetting whether she was on inhale or exhale. Only when she was about to pass out because she was still holding her breath did she let a lungful of oxygen rush from her chest.

Oh, well. Breathing was overrated anyway. She gave up on the entire relaxation attempt and closed her eyes as she worked her way higher. Trace used to tease her relentlessly about fastening things from the bottom up.

“You just gotta do everything backwards, don’t you, Pay Day? You’re supposed to start at the top and go down. You miss less buttons that way, plus it keeps your gig line in order.”

She’d raised an eyebrow at that one. “My what line?”

“It’s a military term.” He had shrugged with his usual nonchalance. “Something to do with making sure your buttons, belt buckle, and fly run a straight column down the front of your body.”

Paige’s derisive snicker had told him what she’d thought of that. “Are you joining the Army now? Since when do you know military terms?”

Lying way too comfortably on her bed with his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles and his arms resting behind his head, he had merely sent her a cocky smile. “I know everything.”

And he had. Her brother had been the brightest, most promising member of their family. He was going to go places. Even after his funeral, the college acceptance letters had poured in, inviting him to attend their university with a full ride.

He’d been anticipating the letter from Granton University the most. And it had come with a complete scholarship included.

Two weeks too late.

Her own nostalgic smile dying, Paige tried not to remember his infectious grin, though it was hard, particularly this morning. She left the top two buttons unfastened so she wouldn’t feel as if she was choking through the entire day, and cold metal brushed the back of her hand as she manually tried to straighten her crooked gig line. With a sigh, she wrapped her fingers around the cool amulet draping her neck. A ruby embedded in a Celtic-looking cross. Trace had given it to her on her thirteenth birthday since ruby was her birthstone.

It was big, and clunky, and kind of gaudy, but in the three years he’d been gone, she’d yet to take it off. She squeezed the shape of the cross into her palm and whispered into the dim dorm room.

“For you, Bubba. I won’t let you down.”

A buzz echoed around her. Paige jumped, freaked for a split second that the ghost of her brother was responding…until she realized her cell phone was simply vibrating across the corner of her new desk, announcing an incoming call.

On the other side of the room, sheets rustled from the shadowed corner, giving her another heart attack. Still not used to sharing her space with anyone else, especially a complete stranger, Paige dashed a worried glance in the direction of her roommate’s bed as she leaped toward her phone to silence it.

“Hello,” she answered in a harried, hushed voice, trying not to wake Mariah, though honestly, Mariah hadn’t seemed all that worried about not waking her when she’d come stumbling in at two this morning, cursing across the dark room until she’d turned on the light over her bed and jerked Paige from a restless sleep.

Huddled under her covers, Paige had feigned unconsciousness until Mariah had changed into a camisole and shorty shorts, then passed out face first on top of her covers, the reek of stale alcohol and cigarettes filming the air. Paige had waited five minutes before she’d tiptoed across the floor and killed the lights. It had taken her another hour to fall back to sleep in between counting every time Mariah tossed and turned, making the springs on her mattress screech and moan.

“Hello?” a quiet voice breathed back. “Why are we whispering?”

Paige sat on the edge of her bed, relieved to hear her best friend. “Because my roommate’s still asleep.”

She squinted through the dark, wondering if she actually should wake Mariah. Her new roomie probably wouldn’t like being late on the first day of classes. But if she was the type to habitually come in at two in the morning, then maybe she was smart enough not to schedule an early course.