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Hotbloods
Author: Bella Forrest

Chapter One

 

 

“Remind me which genius suggested we put this off till midday?” My friend Angie’s muffled voice drifted through the stalks of corn to my right.

“I believe the same one who didn’t pack enough water,” my second companion, Lauren—also obscured by giant shafts of corn—replied, from five feet to my left. Her naturally dry tone sounded more sarcastic than usual, probably because, thanks to Angie, we’d run out of water half an hour ago.

I smirked, taking a few seconds’ pause from picking corn to wipe sweat from my forehead with the back of my wrist. Despite wearing a shirt and shorts made of cotton so light it was almost see-through and a wide straw sombrero, and religiously sticking to the shade of the corn stalks, this Texan sun was killing me. Still, I loved this kind of work, using my hands— it was cathartic—so I wasn’t going to complain.

“Also the same one who suggested we spend our vacation on this delightful farm,” Lauren added with a grunt. I pictured her tall, lanky form hunched over as she tackled a far too unripe cob, while her narrow, purple, librarian-style glasses glided slowly but surely down her nose. She was not so much a fan of manual work.

“Oh, come on, Lauree.” I couldn’t resist teasing her, despite my resolution to save my voice for after we’d returned to the farmhouse and I’d downed a liter of water. “We know you love it here.”

“‘Course she does,” Angie proclaimed, and I could hear her broad grin through her voice. “What’s not to love?”

“Guess you have a point.” Amid her heavy breathing, Lauren managed to force a note of thoughtfulness into her voice. “I mean, aside from the fact that we’re off the grid, with no electricity or phone signal for literally miles—who wouldn’t appreciate a welcome package of a heap of moldy towels, a sprinkle of roach droppings on their pillowcase, or… a snake in their toilet pot?”

Angie and I burst out laughing. From the tremor in Lauren’s voice, I could tell she still hadn’t gotten over last night’s surprise. Trust Lauren to get dibs on the snake.

“After I had sat down, I might add.”

“It was a grass snake,” Angie retorted, “and a pretty cute one at that.”

“Cute my ass,” Lauren grumbled.

A span of amused silence fell between us as we returned to filling our sacks. This was the second of three assignments we had to complete today; the first had been running bed linens through a manual laundry machine, draining them through a ringer, and then hanging them up to dry outside, and the third would be picking fresh herbs from the greenhouse. Mr. and Mrs. Churnley, friends of Angie’s grandparents and the owners and sole full-time residents of Elmcreek Farm, were to assign us three such jobs every day, in return for free board and lodging.

We had arrived only yesterday evening, having flown from New York to Austin, but I was already feeling a sense of calm about the place. Being without electricity, internet, or a working phone was a culture shock we were all still getting used to, but the lack of external distractions was exactly why we had chosen to come here.

This summer was the last chance Angie, Lauren, and I would have to spend quality time together for possibly a very long time, because after the vacation ended, we’d all be heading off in vastly different directions—Angie even to a different country. I was enrolled to begin a mechanical engineering course in Michigan, and Lauren was to study pre-law at Stanford, while Angie would be jetting off to Paris for an apprenticeship at a prestigious sports-fashion brand (thus combining her two biggest passions). If things worked out for Angie there, we’d see very little of her indeed.

She and I had known each other since kindergarten, while Lauren had known us since first grade, so we decided we needed to do something special, and completely different, this summer—something we’d never forget.

I also had a more personal reason for wanting to be in the middle of nowhere this particular vacation… unreachable. Before I left for Michigan, I knew my birth parents were going to try to get in touch—something I dreaded from the very core of me. My adoptive parents, Jean and Roger, could only hold them off for so long now that I’d turned eighteen, and the court legislation no longer had the same hold that it did during my earlier teen years. After I became an official adult three weeks ago, my birth parents had gotten the idea that they wanted to know me. I might have been more amenable to that if they hadn’t spent the first decade of my life neglecting me to the point of abuse. Alcohol had always taken precedence over me in their lives, and I didn’t see any reason that would change. Their addiction would’ve gotten me killed if I hadn’t run away at nine, and I swore then that I was never, ever going back…

I let out a breath, forcing my consciousness back to the bright, beautiful world around me, allowing it to separate the past from the present.

Yes. Elmcreek was the perfect escape for all of us this summer.

“Oh man, my hat just blew off.” Angie broke the quiet. “And—augh—I can’t reach it. Could one of you guys help me?”

“I volunteer Riley,” announced Lauren.

Exhaling, I stowed the cob I held in my hand in my sack. “Yeah, okay, shortie. Coming.”

I waded through the field, batting away flies and pushing aside leaves until I reached her. The five-foot-five girl with curly blonde hair was standing on her tiptoes, the hem of her short blue dress hiked high up her legs as she stretched for a floppy pink sun hat that was ridiculously out of her reach. She turned around to face me, her hazel eyes meeting mine. She had a smile on her round, impish face, and her light blonde eyebrows, so fair in the daylight they were almost invisible, rose in expectation.

I eyed the hat again and tried to reach for it myself first, given that I was a fair bit taller than her, but I couldn’t, so we ended up coordinating a balancing act with her on my shoulders, knocking my own hat to the ground in the process.

“Wo-hoah, it’s like a whole other world up here,” Angie gasped as her head rose above the jungle of corn.

“Just be quick,” I muttered from between her chunky thighs. “Your butt is breaking my shoulders.”

“It’s all muscle and you know it,” she retorted, before stretching out.

Then she stilled.

“What’s taking so long?” I asked, squinting in the glaring sunlight.

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