Becoming Calder Page 1

Author: Mia Sheridan

Genres: Romance , New Adult

PROLOGUE

"I have taken away the mist from your eyes, that before now was there, so that you may well recognize the god and the mortal."

Homer, The Iliad

I was assaulted by the smell of exhaust and rancid garbage as I stepped off the bus. My stomach rolled, and I moved left to avoid having to walk too closely to the overflowing waste cans a couple feet in front of me.

The half-eaten hamburger sitting on top of the pile caught my eye and my instincts almost made me grab it and shove it in my mouth, but I clenched my fists and kept walking. I was so hungry, painfully hungry, but I wasn't at the point where I would eat garbage, at least not just yet.

I opened the doors to the station and looked around the dim interior at the signs for the ticket window. I'd need directions to get where I was headed.

At least everything's labeled in the outside world. As I recalled those words I felt a strong rush of grief. I straightened my spine and moved inside.

I spotted the ticket counter and started making my way through the people milling around, waiting for the next bus. I briefly made eye contact with a young man in sagging pants and an overly large sweatshirt. His eyes widened slightly and he jogged over and started walking beside me.

"Hey, baby, you look lost. Can I help?"

I shook my head, taking in the strange smell wafting off him—something slightly bitter and herbal. I glanced at his face quickly and noticed that up close, his eyes were red-rimmed and heavy-lidded. From my peripheral vision, I saw him look at me and move his head up and down, taking in my form.

I increased my pace. I knew I looked desperate. I was desperate. Scared, lost, grief-stricken, unspeakable anguish sitting just beneath the surface of my skin. I did need help. I wasn't worldly—this I knew clearly. But I wasn't naïve enough to believe the man walking next to me was the helpful sort.

"You ain’t got no luggage, baby? What's up with that? You got a place to stay?" He reached over and moved my hair out of my face, and I flinched back from his touch. I continued walking, even faster now. Fear raced through my veins, my empty stomach rolling with nausea.

"Damn, hair like spun gold. Face like an angel. You look like a princess. Anyone ever tell you that?"

A small half-laugh, half-sob bubbled up my throat and I wheezed in a harsh breath to keep it from escaping. My heartbeat ratcheted up a notch as the man started steering himself into me so I was forced to move left in order not to collide with him. I glanced to the side and saw he was attempting to steer me into a dim corridor that looked like it led to a maintenance closet of some sort. I looked around wildly for someone who might help, somewhere I could run, when the man's hand clamped down on my arm. I looked up into his narrowed eyes, his jaw now hard and set. He leaned in and whispered to me, "Listen up, princess. A girl like you has a whole lot to offer. And I'm a businessman. You wanna hear about my business, princess?"

I shook my head vigorously again, weighing my options for escape. I could scream. Surely there was at least one decent person in the vicinity who would help me. I could try to fight him, but as weak and tired as I was, he would overpower me quickly. That's when I felt the sting of something sharp press into me through my light jacket and the thin cotton of my T-shirt. Oh God, there's a knife to my side. I looked down at his hand holding the small silver blade against my body and then back up into his eyes, now shining with something that looked like determination mixed with excitement.

"You come with me, princess, and I'll have no need to use this on you. You'll like my offer, I promise. It involves all kinds of money for you. You like money, princess? Who doesn't like money, right?"

"Take your hands off her, Eli," said a deep voice behind us. I swiveled my head at the same time Eli did and took in the sight of a huge man standing casually, hands hanging at his sides, a seemingly bored expression on his face. My eyes widened as I took in all the designs and colors swirling up the left side of his neck—stopping just under his jaw—and his muscular arms covered with the same intricate art.

"This ain’t your business, Paul," Eli spat out.

"The hell it isn't. When I see a cockroach, I crush it under my boot. Cockroaches offend me. You're a cockroach, Eli. Let her go, or I'll crush you right here in the bus station for all the other cockroaches to see." Paul kept his eyes trained on us, but Eli's head moved to the right and I followed his gaze to a group of men dressed similarly to Eli who were sitting casually on a bench at the front of the station, looking our way and snickering.

Eli turned back to Paul and I felt his hold on me loosen slightly. He let out a disgusted sound and pushed me roughly toward Paul. "Got too many bitches on the payroll as it is. Take her." Then he turned and walked in the direction we'd come from.

Paul's hand clamped down on my wrist, and I let out a startled noise as he turned and pulled me behind him, tugging me back toward the entrance. I pulled against him, but he was built like a bear and my attempts didn't even slow him down. "Please," I said, "please, let me go." There was hysteria in my voice.

We exited through the door and the once again, bright outside world caused me to squint my eyes. Paul let go of my wrist and turned toward me. "You a runaway?"

I backed up until I felt the wall of the bus station against my heels. "A runaway?" I repeated.

Paul studied me for a minute. "Yeah, you on the run? Someone looking for you?"

I shook my head slowly, his question causing some of the barely contained anguish to seep through my pores. "No. No one's looking for me. Please, I just want to get out of here."

"What's your name?" he asked, a gentle quality in his voice now.

I blinked up at him. "Eden," I whispered.

Paul narrowed his eyes. "Where you headed, Eden?"

I stared up at him, seeing that despite his gruff exterior, there was concern in his eyes. I let out a ragged breath. "Grant and Rothford Company."

"Grant and Rothford Company? The jewelry store?"

I nodded. "Yes. Can you tell me how to get there?"

"That's only about ten blocks from here. I'll tell you how to get there, but then, you don't come back here, you hear me? This is not the place for a young girl who's alone. I think you get that, right?"

I bit my lip and nodded. "I won't come back here." If all went as planned, I'd be sleeping in a hotel room tonight. I'd have food in my belly, and it would finally be safe to cry.

Paul pointed his finger down the block. "Walk in that direction until you get to Main Street, make a right, and go about six blocks down. You'll see it on your right."

I let out a breath. "Thank you, Paul. Thank you so much. And thank you for saving me from the cockroach." I mustered up a very small smile and then turned and began to walk in the direction he'd pointed me.

As I started to turn the corner, Paul called my name and I stopped and turned, looking at him questioningly. "There are more boot stompers than cockroaches in this world."

I considered him for a minute, tilting my head. "The problem, Paul," I said softly, meeting his eyes, "is that cockroaches can survive the end of the world."

Paul gave me a small, confused smile right before I turned and walked away.

**********

When I looked up the street and spotted the sign I'd been looking for, my cold hand automatically reached into my jeans pocket and wrapped around the heavy gold locket within—the one that had the name of Grant and Rothford Company on the back—the only thing of value I had to my name. I completed the rest of the block sluggishly, hunger, cold, and fatigue overwhelming me.

I pushed the door open and was greeted by the comforting warmth of the heated store. For a second I just stood there and breathed, relieved at both having found my destination, and warmth seeping into my chilled skin. I headed toward the sales counter. But as I passed a display shelf to my right, I caught sight of a glass jewelry box with pressed flowers between the panes creating the illusion they were floating over the velvet interior. I halted, looking more closely, my eyes widening and tears immediately blurring my vision, as I instinctively reached toward it. They were morning glories. I should know, I had fifty-two of them, carefully pressed and preserved in a plastic bag in the inside pocket of my jacket. The locket, the flowers, and a small, round pebble were the only things I had grabbed before escaping. They were the only reminders I had of him. I’d left everything else I had ever known behind. A lump formed in my throat and grief swept over me, so intense, I thought it might knock me down. I reached out to touch the glass, one finger tracing the deep blue petals of the flower I was so well acquainted with. But my body was worn-down, tired, hungry, and my hand jerked ungracefully and knocked into a crystal vase sitting on the shelf next to the jewelry box. As if in slow motion, it wobbled and fell despite my unsuccessful attempt to grab it. It crashed to the floor and shattered at my feet. I sucked in a loud gasp and jerked my head up as a woman came rushing toward me, saying, "Oh no! Not the Waterford!" She brought her hands to her cheeks and pursed her lips as she stopped in front of the pile of shattered glass.

"I'm so sorry," I gasped. "It was just an accident."

The woman huffed out a breath. She was well-manicured beauty: stylish in a dark gray suit, hair swept up gracefully, and her face stunning with perfectly applied makeup. I shrunk before her. I knew what I looked like. I was wearing clothes stolen from a clothesline from someone who was obviously quite a bit larger than me. I hadn't bathed for three days and my hair hung loose and lank around my face and down my back to just above my backside—far too long to be stylish. The woman looked me up and down.

"Well, accident or not, this will need to be paid for."

My shoulders sagged. "I don't have any money," I whispered, glancing around as my cheeks heated and the few customers roaming the shop looked away uncomfortably. I was almost surprised to find I still had a little pride left.

I brought the gold locket out of my pocket. "I was hoping to sell this—and maybe get some information about it, too," I said, imploring the woman to help me. Please help me. I'm so scared. I'm in so much pain. I've been broken in so many ways.

She put her hands on her h*ps and looked from the locket to my face and back at the locket again. She took it from my cupped hand and held it up to the light. Then she looked back at me. "Well, lucky for you, this is gold. This will probably take care of the cost of the vase." She kept looking at it, turning it over in her manicured hands. "There's no way to give you any information about it though—no engraving or personalization." She looked over her shoulder at a man who had just finished dealing with a customer and was coming out from behind the counter. She pointed to the crystal on the floor and said, "Phillip, will you have this cleaned up while I take care of this . . . girl?"

"Of course," Phillip said, eyeing me curiously.

I followed the woman to the counter. "Wait here while I weigh this. You don't have the chain that goes with it?"

I shook my head. "No, just the locket."

I stood at the counter, my hands resting on the glass in front of me. When I noticed they were shaking visibly, I pulled them back and rubbed them together, attempting to still my body with mind over matter. My heart thumped hollowly in my chest. Fear and hopelessness rose up my throat, making it difficult to swallow.

I looked behind me where the woman had entered a door to the back of the shop and saw her talking to an older man through the glass. He furrowed his brow as he looked up at me and nodded his head, his eyes lingering for a moment before he looked down at what he held in his hand. The woman turned and walked back through the door and behind the counter where I stood. "We can give you twelve hundred dollars for the locket, which is a little bit under what the vase cost, but we're willing to give a discount on that so the matter is resolved."

Vomit rose up my throat. "Please, I need that money," I said, raising my voice. "It's all I have."

"I'm really very sorry, but there's nothing I can do. The vase has to be paid for. We can't just eat that cost. We run a business here."

"Please!" I said again, louder this time, bringing my hands down on the counter with a loud slap. The woman startled and pursed her lips, leaning in toward me so that I leaned back.

"Do I need to call the police, miss?" she asked in a harsh whisper, barely moving her mouth.

Dread raced through my veins and I swayed slightly before pulling myself upright. I shook my head vigorously. "No," I squeaked out. I took a deep breath, "Please, I just . . . I don't have any money and that locket . . ."

I sucked in another breath, refusing to cry in front of this woman, in front of all the customers who were pretending to mill around but were really listening to the exchange between us. "That locket is all I have. I need the money for it to find somewhere to sleep tonight. Please," I ended pathetically.

Something I thought might be sympathy flashed in the woman's eyes, but she leaned back, crossed her arms over her chest, and said, "I'm sorry, there isn't anything I can do. There's a homeless shelter over on Elm Street. The fourteen hundred block. I've passed by it several times. Now I'm going to have to ask you to leave our store."

I hung my head, too sick, tired, and heartbroken to put up a fight. How had I managed to squander my one chance for money and possible safety? Now I very literally had nothing of value to my name. Nothing at all, in fact, except the stolen clothes on my back, the pressed flowers and the small pebble in my pocket. I turned and walked out of the store as if in a daze, thoroughly depleted of every ounce of hope.

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