Hannah Slaughtery knew she didn’t belong here. While other girls were joining sororities and going to parties, she had spent her first semester of college studying in her room. Alone. And while she was arguably one of the smartest students in the Bio-Chemistry program, she was sure the invitation to attend a leadership seminar sponsored by the mysterious Institute had been delivered by mistake. Still, here she sat, afraid to drive up to the foreboding gate that guarded her destination.
With a nervous sigh, Hannah examined her reflection in the visor mirror. She had never given her appearance much thought, but her fashionista roommate had insisted on giving her a make-over the first week of classes. She touched up the smudged eyeliner below her pool blue eyes and tucked her short, blonde hair behind her ears. Finally convinced this was as good as it was going to get, she snapped the cover shut and started the engine.
A key pad illuminated as she pulled her car into the private drive and she punched in the access code that had accompanied her invitation. The imposing barrier creaked open and she steered down a tranquil, tree lined road. Being inside the Institute presented a unique opportunity for Hannah. She’d heard rumors the fabled laboratory occasionally offered internships to top students in her department and she hoped her participation this week would increase her chances of being selected.
A security checkpoint with dark tinted windows appeared and a guard with a military haircut looked down at her through aviator sunglasses. “Good afternoon, Ms. Slaughtery. May I see your driver’s license and student ID?” he asked as he surveyed the back seat.
She fumbled for her wallet. “You know my name?”
He looked at her, amused. “The code alerted us to your arrival.”
“Oh, right.” Hannah handed over the cards, her face flush.
After a quick examination, the guard returned her information, along with a sleek phone and map and Hannah caught the faint scent of coconut coming from his hand. “Most carriers don’t have reception up here,” he explained. “You can use this to make calls. The route to Garrett Manor has been highlighted on your map. If you need assistance, dial star-nine-nine.”
Hannah thanked him before she asked, “Is anyone else here?”
“The first participant rolled in about fifteen minutes ago, but we expect the others shortly,” he answered and Hannah smiled, relieved not to be the first to arrive.
The winding road that led to Garrett Manor was flanked by hearty vegetation and thick trees that parted as her temporary home came into view. The tall columns and semicircular arches reminded her of early Renaissance architecture and as she drove through the stone entrance, she was surprised to discover the parking lot was actually a converted piazza, complete with a large marble fountain. Carvings of saints peered down at her from their protective niches. Clearly out of place in the rustic peaks of Colorado, the romantic imagery made her smile as she shoved the phone and map into her purse.
When she finally emerged, a grey-haired man in a black suit greeted her. “Welcome, Ms. Slaughtery. May I assist you with your bags?”
“That’s okay,” she stammered. “I can get them.” She yanked her suitcases and backpack from the trunk and added, “Call me Hannah.”
He nodded. “My name is William. Please, follow me to the lounge. You can leave your luggage in the foyer.”
Hannah scurried up the steps behind him. William’s quick gait took her by surprise and she was slightly winded by the time they reached the mahogany entry way. An arched door frame led to the lounge and the view from the tall windows took her breath away. While the clouds of the anticipated storm loomed in the distance, the last rays of sun cast a warm glow over the Rocky Mountains.
The sight added to the grandness of the room. A roaring blaze in the large fireplace complimented the deep red walls and black leather furniture giving the space regal elegance. A table, piled with food and drinks of every variety, was set up nearby. Another participant stood next to the buffet, an empty plate in his hand.
He was boyishly handsome with sandy blonde hair, and though his tanned face looked familiar, she knew they had never met. “Mr. McKenzie,” William called out and the man glanced up. His easy grin reached out to welcome Hannah and she couldn’t help but smile back. “I would like to introduce Ms. Slaughtery,” William continued. “She will also be taking part in the seminar.” With the brief introduction complete, William turned on his heel and left the room.
“Thanks, Billy,” the young man called as he walked toward Hannah, his faded blue eyes bright with laughter. “I bet, if you get a little drink in that guy, he’s a riot.” He extended his hand. “Rafeerty McKenzie, but everyone calls me Rafe.” Hannah shook his hand and managed to murmur her name. He gestured to the table. “That is a quality spread. You should try some.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” she replied and sat down on a long couch near the fireplace.
“Suit yourself. Hope you don’t mind, but I’m starving.” After making his selection, Rafe joined her and skillfully balanced his overflowing plate of food. “So, what do you know about this seminar?” he asked.
“Nothing, really,” she admitted. “I have no idea why I was invited. I’m not exactly a social butterfly.”
“Social butterflies are overrated,” he muttered before he cleared his throat. “I thought it was some clerical error. In fact, I was going to skip it until my buddy got a new job and bailed on our kayaking trip. Didn’t you have plans for break?”
“My family normally leaves for vacation the day after Christmas,” Hannah replied. “Mom was less than thrilled when I told her I wanted to come here instead.”
“Where’d they go?” he asked between bites.
“Hiking through the Austrian Alps.”
He let out an appreciative whistle. “And you voluntarily chose to come here?”
“I’m guess I’m not real outdoorsy. I’m more of a nature girl.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I like being in nature. I just don’t want to hike, sail, ride, or bike through it like the rest of my family,” she explained.
“Do you get along with them?” he asked.
“Yeah, we’re just different. I blame it on the fact I’m adopted,” she replied self-consciously.
“Well, their loss is our gain. Still, it sounds like a fun trip. Give me a campfire, some ice to climb, a little hypothermia and I’m in heaven.”
Hannah laughed. “Speaking of weather, I guess there’s a blizzard heading our way.”
“When isn’t there one?” Rafe continued a steady stream of chatter despite her silence. Without warning, his attention was drawn to something behind her and his mouth gaped open. Hannah turned to see what had distracted him and felt her stomach tighten.
Shayne Westmoreland’s long, lean physique lounged against the door. Everyone on campus knew Shayne, or at least knew to stay out of her way. In addition to being rich and beautiful, she had a reputation for using her sex appeal to get what she wanted. Her gaggle of friends secretly loathed her and her enemies probably ended up keeping Jimmy Hoffa company.
The way the vixen’s sharp violet eyes took in every detail of the room reminded Hannah of winged predators who appeared peaceful and bored until the moment came to swoop down and snatch up an unsuspecting rodent. The new arrival twirled her raven hair around her finger and zeroed in on Rafe. A slow, seductive smile spread across her sun-kissed face. “Why Rafe,” she said. “As I live and breathe. I never dreamed I’d find you here.” Her southern drawl clung to each syllable.
“Shayne.” His voice matched the hostility etched on his face. “I’m surprised you aren’t out buying a small island nation. You could have legions of loyal subjects to work your succubus magic on.”
The debutante’s eyes narrowed and any pretense of good will disappeared. “You know, I would think, after all this time, you would have recovered from our little tryst.”
“When your girlfriend cheats on you with a professor in order to pass a class, it leaves a lasting impression,” Rafe retorted.
Shayne rolled her eyes and turned to Hannah. “He’s exaggerating, of course. It was a grad student. Hi, I’m Shayne.” A territorial warning reverberated in her simple introduction. The light-hearted atmosphere was replaced with palpable tension until William reappeared escorting another student.
Even Hannah, who rarely ventured out of the library, knew Marcelo dela Cruz. Since his arrival at Sanguinity College, the Division II football team had become a conference powerhouse. The tall, broad shouldered Filipino moved toward the trio without waiting for an introduction. “How’s it going?” he asked, with a broad smile.
Shayne batted her eyes and linked arms with the football star. “I can’t believe our big man on campus would be relegated to a mid-break seminar with the commoners,” she gushed.
“I would hardly call you common, Shayne,” Marc laughed as he nodded to Rafe. When he saw Hannah, he detangled himself. “I don’t believe we’ve met.” He extended his hand. “I’m Marc.”
She gingerly accepted his greeting and said, “I’m Hannah.” After a few awkward moments, he turned back to Rafe and Shayne and rubbed his hands together. “I hear there’s food around here.”
Rafe gestured to the buffet. “Help yourself. It should tide you over until dinner time.” On cue, Marc’s stomach growled and everyone except Hannah erupted in laughter.
“I doubt that,” the football player replied with a chuckle.
Marc and Shayne walked away to survey the array of food and Rafe moved next to Hannah. “Sorry about her,” he offered through clenched teeth. “Long story.”
Hannah nodded sympathetically and changed the subject. “How do you know Marc?”
“We were roommates freshman year. We get along okay now, but back then,” his voice trailed off.
“Too much ego?” she teased.
“Maybe,” Rafe admitted. “He’s a good guy, just a little too intense.”
Hannah nodded and looked at the darkening western sky. “I would hate to be stranded in the mountains tonight.”
“Billy-boy said there were five of us total, so I guess we’re waiting for one more.”
“One more what?” Marc asked, as he settled into the chair across from Hannah.
“Another participant,” Rafe answered.
The football star began to devour his food. “Yeah, what’s the deal with this seminar?” he asked. “I wasn’t going to come, but somehow I ended up three credits short for graduation. Unless I want to stick around this summer, which I don’t, this is my only option.”
“You’re getting credit for this?” Rafe asked in disbelief. “Must be nice to have friends in the athletic department.”
Marc shifted uncomfortably. “Technically, it’s an independent study. Before the end of the semester, I have to turn in a paper about my experience.”
“Dude,” Rafe said. “I was just messing with you. You’re the one who was always complaining about the fluff classes your teammates take to maintain their full-time status. Just wanted to make sure your morality compass was still pointing to righteous.”
“Any idea who our fifth is?” Shayne interjected. “I hope it’s a guy,”
“Watch out, world. Shayne’s on the prowl for another victim.” Rafe said under his breath.
For a moment, rage flickered across Shayne’s face. Instead of detracting from her looks, the reaction only served to intensify her beauty. “You really need to get over it. I did.”
“Obviously,” Rafe snorted.
As if sensing the impending conflict, William appeared and everyone turned to see the final member of their party. Hannah’s breath caught in her throat. There was sadness in the new arrival’s dark brown eyes and her initial instinct to look away was over-ridden by the intensity of the connection that surged between them.
“I would like to introduce Finn O’Connor,” the older man said, though his words sounded muffled to Hannah’s ears. “Now that everyone has arrived, I’ll show you to your rooms,” Someone will meet you in the common room of your living quarters in an hour. Dinner is served promptly at six. That should give you plenty of time to unpack your belongings.”
Unaccustomed to being kept out of the loop, Shayne moved close to their guide. “It seems this seminar is a bit of a mystery. Maybe you could give us a hint of what to expect.” Her voice was sugary sweet and yet, it had no effect on William.
With a stern face, he replied, “All your questions will be answered in time. For now, follow me.” From his steely response, even Shayne recognized it was a battle she wouldn’t win.
Rafe fell in step with Hannah and whispered, “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I saw a horror movie that started out like this.”
“Great,” Hannah whispered back. “The first person killed in a slasher flick is always a girl, and since it’s obvious Shayne is the killer, my moments are numbered.”
Rafe burst out laughing. “Look at you, getting your funny on. I think this may be the beginning,” he started.
“Don’t say it,” Hannah giggled.
Rafe grinned. “Of a beautiful friendship.”
“You really said it,” she groaned. Without warning, Finn pushed past them.
“Watch it,” Rafe said. “What’s his problem?”
Hannah shook her head in stunned silent. What Rafe had missed was the unprovoked look of jealousy on Finn’s face. A look directed at her.