“Come on, Cer,” Jenn coaxed, grabbing her hand and tugging her forward.
Casey provided backup, using her athletic build to keep Ceri moving from behind. “At least pretend you’re as shallow as the rest of us.”
“I don’t think you’re shallow,” Ceri protested over her shoulder. “I’m just not interested in—”
“Yeah, yeah, we know.” Jenn held up her ID to the big, muscular security guy at the door and then pulled Ceri’s out of her bag as well. “Hot guys and fun aren’t your thing.” Jenn flashed Ceri’s ID, smirking when the bouncer looked at the photo, blinked, and then turned his full attention Ceri’s way.
Uncomfortable, Ceri offered a weak, shy smile of her own and dropped her gaze.
Casey adjusted the strap on her form-fitting cami while they waited. “Think of it as an audit,” she suggested.
“Yeah. Just pretend you’re auditing a class on the bizarre mating rituals of the modern-day college student. Take mental notes or something. Jenn and I will quiz you on it later if it makes you feel better.”
Ceri felt the heat rush into her cheeks. The bouncer stood taller, puffing out his chest.
“You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to,” he offered. “You can sit out here with me.”
Jenn and Casey exchanged knowing glances while Ceri tried to shrink further into the shadows. They were amused and awed by the phenomenon, what they called the Ceri Effect. For some reason, men seemed to trip over themselves around her, their chivalrous and protective tendencies rising to the surface. Wherever she went, doors were held open, seats were offered, and dropped items were instantly recovered.
Ceri was at a loss to explain it. She didn’t like the attention, but apparently, her friends did, which was one of the reasons they so often invited her along. Oh, they liked her well enough, but they readily admitted the added male attention was a nice bonus.
For her part, Ceri would have much preferred a quiet weekend in the halls of the research library to a night of drinking and dancing in a rowdy, upscale college bar.
The bouncer was looking at her hopefully, waiting for a response to his invitation. Ceri reached out and lightly touched his forearm with her fingertips. His eyes widened at the contact, and then his expression eased.
“Thank you,” she said softly, “but I’ll be fine.”
“Why not ask him to let us in for free?” Casey murmured out of the side of her mouth.
Even as she spoke, the bouncer started to return their money, but Ceri put the bills back in his hand and closed his fingers around it. He beamed at the extended contact.
“Take a break, Kev,” said a deep voice from behind them.
Ceri started at the sound and whirled around to find herself face-to-chest with the speaker. She inhaled sharply as she lifted her gaze to find dark auburn hair, strong and masculine features, and rippling muscles beneath the well-fitting black Orgasmic polo. He smiled down at her, amusement dancing in his beautiful, hypnotic green eyes.
Amusement but not adoration. She liked him instantly.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, that’s two, and we haven’t even made it inside the club yet. Come on,” Jenn prodded, catching Ceri’s wrist and wrenching her forward, “before all the good tables are taken.”
Sandwiched between the two women, Ceri had no choice but to move forward. She looked back over her shoulder, but the auburn-haired guy was talking to the first bouncer.
“You have a gift, girlfriend,” Casey commented.
“Yeah. I mean, men go nuts for you, Cer,” Jenn added. “Letting that guy wave the cover would have made his night. You totally crushed the dude’s feelings.”
“We got him in trouble, I think,” Ceri said, biting at her lip.
“Nah. The big guy’s just staking his claim. He wanted a piece of you, too.”
Not like the others, Ceri thought, looking back over her shoulder again.
Before she could analyze that further, they passed through the entranceway and into another world. All thoughts of the handsome man were pushed aside as Ceri braced herself for the sensory onslaught. The flashing strobe lights sent a series of quick, sudden stabs through her eyes, the cacophony of music and voices an explosion in her ears. Her stomach roiled at the combined scents of more than a hundred writhing bodies, alcohol, and other things far less pleasant.
Ceri’s hand automatically reached up to curl around the icy-blue crystal she wore on a thin leather cord around her neck. It responded instantly to her touch, warming against her skin as it drew away some of the excess energy and gathered it in a highly concentrated form.
Inwardly, Ceri imagined the quiet and solitude of her private sanctuary. The gentle rush of flowing water from the Asian tranquility fountains she had strategically placed throughout. The quiet tinkling of the crystal wind chimes in the fresh, fragrant currents of air from her always-open windows. Thinking of those things brought her peace and allowed her to coexist in a world that felt strangely foreign to her, though it was the only world she had ever known.
It wasn’t long before she felt the familiar pull deep in her center, the draw on her core energy—what some people referred to as chi. It happened whenever she was in the presence of others, particularly large crowds, which was one of the reasons she preferred solitude over socialization. After even a few hours among people, they felt better, and she would be exhausted, as if they had sucked the very essence from her. If she wasn’t careful about limiting her time in public, she would become so weak that it could take days for her to fully recover.
Over time, she’d learned some tricks that made limited interaction possible. Open-air spaces, like the student quads and botanical gardens, weren’t nearly as difficult for her as dark, enclosed areas. And anyplace near water—lakesides, beaches, waterfalls—was even better. When neither of those was an option, she resorted to crystals, like the one she gripped now, and ancient meditative techniques to center herself and form temporary shields to block out the worst of it.
As the crowd surged around them, Ceri wished she hadn’t given in to Jenn and Casey so easily, though they really hadn’t given her much of a choice. They’d been insistent on including her, even going so far as threatening to follow her home and camping out all weekend if necessary. Ceri had no doubt they would have done it, too. Their auras, normally light purples and pinks, had grown darker, taking on shades of red, indicating their determination.
That was another unusual “skill” Ceri possessed—the ability to see a person’s mood, to read the inherent personality traits in the ever-present nimbus of varying colors surrounding them. Once she’d learned how to interpret the colors, that ability served her well. Oftentimes, she was able to steer clear of potential trouble. When it was impossible or impractical for her to avoid a situation entirely, she could at least prepare and sidestep in order to minimize potential impact.
Tonight, it had been very clear that her friends were not going to back down, and Ceri had opted for the path of least resistance. As much as she liked the two women, Ceri could not permit them—or anyone else—to invade her private sanctuary.
I can do this, she told herself, even as the energy of the crowd pressed down on her.
She would satisfy whatever bizarre need they had to drag her out among the masses, assuaging the guilt they felt at leaving her behind every weekend even though she repeatedly assured them that she preferred a quiet night in to drinking, dancing, and flirting. They didn’t understand that she was different, and Ceri couldn’t explain it to them because she didn’t understand it herself.
An hour perhaps, no more. She could maintain her shields for that long. That should be more than enough time to satisfy their Good Samaritan urges, and by then, they would be so engrossed in having a good time that she’d be able to make a quiet exit.
And so, instead of turning and running out the door like her self-preservation instincts urged, Ceri stepped back against the wall and withdrew into herself. Outwardly, nothing changed. Anyone glancing her way would simply assume she’d paused to let her eyes adjust to the lights. Inwardly, however, she re-absorbed the highly focused energy from her crystal and used it to erect the blocks that would protect her from the sensory onslaught and allow her to pretend to be normal, if only for a little while.
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