Nine

In less than seventy-two hours, Hayleigh's whole world had turned completely upside down.

Ever since that girl appeared, Hayleigh didn't know what to think anymore. Everything she thought she knew about Rowen was now one big question mark. It was bad enough to entertain the idea that she was just being used for sex, but if there was a bigger, more sinister motive…

Now, everything felt like one big puzzle she had to solve. If she cracked it, would she be able to escape from it? Was that girl the mastermind behind everything and simply delaying the inevitable to toy with her? But what was the endgame? Blackmail? In exchange for what? If it was simply to cause trouble the video would've been released by now. And yet to go out of the way to install a camera… None of it made sense.

Communication was also a one-way street. The unregistered number did not answer whenever Hayleigh tried to text or call back. She was beginning to feel trapped in a web too large for her to see. Was she just caught in the crossfire or a target all along? More importantly, what was Rowen's role in all of it?

The right thing would've been to confront him, but she didn't know what to be more afraid of: asking him or hearing the answer. She'd ignored him for three days straight and missed two classes in a row. It was irresponsible, but she wouldn't be able to focus either way. She could barely concentrate in her other classes at all.

Hayleigh nearly flinched in surprise as the bell rang. She hurriedly picked up her things and followed the throng of students leaving the classroom. Slowly, she waded through the crowd down the hallway until she spotted Rowen at the opposite end. She quickly turned around, but he had already seen her.

"Shit," she hissed under her breath as she pushed against the swarm of students. She needed to hide in the nearest bathroom and—

A hand grabbed her wrist. It was firm enough not to hurt, but strong enough not to break free from without causing a scene.

Hayleigh's pulse began to escalate as Rowen surreptitiously pushed her to an empty classroom. He gently pushed her to the wall right next to the door with one hand on the knob, effectively trapping her in place.

His hand remained unmoving just below her collarbone. Surely he could feel her heart beating wildly inside her.

The still silence in the room seemed to stretch on forever. Her ears strained to hear something from him, her lips raring to break the silence herself, but one wrong word was all it took to give everything away. His slate grey eyes scrutinized her face, wordlessly demanding the answers she'd avoided in the last three days.

"Where have you been?" he finally asked in an eerily calm voice. "Why haven't you been answering any of my calls?"

Hayleigh cleared her throat before swallowing to keep her voice steady. "I've been sick. I was just about to let you know."

"You could've informed me three days ago. A single text would've sufficed."

She forced out a weak smile. "I'm sorry."

It was nearly impossible to keep looking him straight in the eye. This man who she'd been with for over two months now felt like a complete stranger.

Do you know about the camera in the library? How many have been there before me? Who are you, really?

Try as she might, the words could not leave her. She couldn't find the courage to ask the questions out loud.

"I expect to see you in class on Friday," he said, finally releasing her. He left the room without another word.

Hayleigh released a shaky breath. She closed her eyes and held back tears of frustration before promptly leaving the room.


Faint shadows were already forming under Hayleigh's eyes the next time she looked into the mirror.

Lack of sleep over the last few days had finally started to show. Even her face seemed sunken, or perhaps it was just the lighting in the girls' room. It was hard to keep an appetite while the stress ate at her.

She was yet to hear from the mysterious girl, whose last text was the clue about Prof. Michaels. The waiting game was agonizing, and with every waking hour she grew more paranoid at every glance thrown her way, at every huddled group she passed by. Was the video finally out making rounds? Was she already the campus laughingstock? How long before the dean called for her expulsion?

"Hey, you're letting the water run."

Hayleigh looked up. The mysterious girl with long, black hair stood next to her in the mirror. She nearly jumped with surprise, but the girl's face was replaced by another stranger entirely when she blinked.

"Sorry," Hayleigh muttered, turning off the faucet and drying her hands. She gave her tired reflection a final appraisal before leaving the restroom, where the swarm of students down the hallway brought her back into focus. She clutched her books closer to her chest and trudged down the packed corridors to her next class.

"Miss Sullivan!"

Prof. Michaels caught up from behind, waving as he fell into step beside her. "Good to see you around. Where are you headed?"

"Third floor. I have class," she answered, almost too hastily. There was something about him that made her uneasy, perhaps even more so at the strange, still unexplained connection he had to everything.

"So do I. On the same floor, actually," he replied. "Let me walk with you upstairs."

She halfheartedly assented in silence. They began heading for the third floor; his long strides effortlessly catching up with her even as she tried to be a few steps ahead of him.

"Have you taken up any electives yet?" he asked as they ascended the stairs. "I'm surprised you can quote Milton and not be in any of my classes."

Hayleigh forced a smile. "Maybe it's because I can, and that's why I won't need to."

Prof. Michaels laughed. "Touché, Miss Sullivan. All the more reason to be my student next term, so you can put me in my place."

She stopped in front of her classroom. "Well, I'm going in. See you around, Prof. Michaels."

"Keiran," he corrected. "You don't need to be so formal with me, remember?"

"And why is that, Prof. Michaels?" a deep voice behind her inquired.

Hayleigh turned around. Rowen stood in the doorway of his classroom. His steely, grey gaze was fixed on Keiran.

"Ah, Prof. Henderson," Keiran sang, dimples deepening into his cheeks. "I was just chatting with Miss Sullivan here. Is she a student of yours?"

"As a matter of fact, she is," Rowen drawled without looking at her. "Get inside, Miss Sullivan."

His voice was heavy with command. His expression gave away nothing, and yet he sounded cross. What had she done this time?

"See you around, Hayleigh," Keiran crooned behind her. She barely managed to return his smile before glancing up at Rowen again, whose full attention was now on her. His gaze held no warmth at all.

She headed straight for her seat and did not look up for the rest of the period.


It was almost ten in the evening when Rowen filed the last paper on his desk. He fell against his chair with a creak and removed his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. His body yearned for a hot shower and a soft bed, and yet his mind remained racing non-stop for the last few days.

Hayleigh was beginning to act strange. Unsurprising, but disappointing. Especially frustrating, now that he had one final level to clear. Now he was stuck in the same boat as Keiran, who remained at a standstill with his pet.

Rowen eyed his office door before rising. The halls were deathly silent at this time of the night as his footsteps echoed off the walls on his way to Keiran's office. The Literature professor was still in, typing on his laptop.

Keiran smiled at him without looking. "Good evening, Rowen."

Rowen leaned against the doorway and slipped a hand in his pocket. "What are you doing?"

"Just finishing a dissertation on Tennyson."

"You know what I'm talking about."

Keiran continued typing with raised eyebrows. "You'll have to be a little more specific, I'm afraid."

"Hayleigh."

Keiran closed his laptop before finally looking up at him. "Ah."

The word hung in the air, lingering, provoking Rowen. He did not give Keiran the satisfaction and stood his ground.

Keiran rested his chin on top of clasped hands. "She sat in my class the other day. I must say, she's cuter in person."

The hand inside Rowen's pocket clenched. "She's not your pet to play with."

"Of course. I would never do such a thing." The smile on Keiran's lips stretched like the Cheshire Cat's. "Though I did wonder if it was you who sent her my way. She would've made a nice gift. A hand-me-down, but lovely nonetheless."

Rowen bared his teeth. "What the hell are you talking about? She's off-limits."

"Why? You'll be done with her soon enough." Keiran leaned back, slowly tilting his chair. "I'll tell you what. The game's all yours. I'll just take Hayleigh as a consolation prize."

"Like hell you are," Rowen snapped. "You're not laying a single finger on her, even after I'm done with her."

"Look at you. Don't be selfish, hoarding all the prizes." Keiran pouted until his eyes lit up with malice. "Unless you're jealous?"

Rowen leaned away from the doorway. It was too late to rise to the occasion. Keiran was already laughing.

"Well, how about that." Keiran clapped once. "Then again, who can blame you? That girl's a wild one. Maybe I'll pick her next term, who knows."

"Do it and I'll make sure you regret it," Rowen growled with finality. "Stay away from her, Keiran. She's mine."

Rowen slammed the door behind him before Keiran could say another word.

to be continued