Chapter 1

LOVESICK BRAVES by Pamela Sanderson

Ester hurried across campus, head down against the bitter wind. She pulled her flimsy coat more tightly around her shoulders as if that might help. In the brief time since she’d left her desk, the cold drizzle picked up and turned into a driving, slushy rain. Any other day and she would have abandoned this mission. Now that the center had moved to campus, she had plenty of opportunities to sneak into the computer lab.

However, today she was ready to talk to the guy. She would throw out a confident smile and make small talk like regular people. She’d open with a comment about the weather followed by a question asking what classes he took. The words would come out naturally, except that was a joke because every time she stood in the same room with him, she got so nervous there was nothing natural about her.

Ester entered the computer lab from the back door and found an open terminal in the corner. From this spot she would be able to keep an eye on him until she was ready to say something. She typed in the login borrowed from Audra and loaded the clips she was working on. Would he be wearing the gray hoodie, or the gray hoodie? She peeked over the monitor.

A long-limbed blonde with don’t-mess-with-me eye makeup sat at the front of the room. She caught Ester’s eyes and tilted her head to one side, as if to say, Not the lab assistant you’re looking for?

Ester sank back into the seat, embarrassment turning into disappointment. Then she grew cross about being disappointed. This turned into annoyance because her feet were ice cubes, her pants were damp and she had to walk back across campus in the crap weather before she could be safe at her desk, deluxe space heater doing its job on her chilly bones. She’d gotten herself into this predicament so she could run into and, seriously this time, say hello to a guy. A guy who probably would have said hi back and never thought of her again.

The man in question was the usual lab assistant at this hour. He was a big guy, both in terms of height—he had to be a least a head taller than Ester—but also brawn. This guy looked like he spent his spare time tearing trees out of the ground and smashing them over his knee. He’d caught her eye because of his warm brown skin and long black ponytail. She liked the way he moved, his giant hands working over the computer keyboard, or his careful sidestep when he worked his way through a row of computer terminals, like Godzilla, only trying to avoid knocking over a building. And the way he responded to requests to put paper in the printer with a weary suppressed scowl. She was ninety percent certain he was Native.

She’d planned her entire day around running into him today. Probably wasn’t a tragedy that he didn’t show up. She would have chickened out or sputtered and forgotten what she’d planned to say. The Ester who existed in her head was much braver than the Ester who put on pants every morning.

She turned her attention to the screen and reviewed her clips and images. The lab’s larger screens and faster machines made it more fun than using the computers at the center. The current project was another short film to appeal for help in finding a permanent home for the Crooked Rock Urban Indian Center. After much cajoling, her boss, Linda Bird, the executive director of the UIC, relented and did another interview about the various homes the UIC used or hoped to use.

According to the online tutorial, the challenge of telling a good story was getting all the information in, placing the images in the best order, and timing it right. She rearranged the same bits: the Chief Building they planned to buy, the cramped space in the strip mall they’d vacated months earlier, and their current home, which was a meeting room on campus. She added an early photo of their founder, Margie, typing into a boxy computer on her kitchen table, then shuffled the clips back and forth, unable to sense what worked best.

A quiet tone sounded on her phone. She glanced at the display.

Linda texted: Conference call?

Crap. Once her head was in a film project, everything else fell away.

On my way.

She hit save, yanked on her coat, then grabbed her backpack and hurried from the room. Students crowded the hallway, forcing her to push through before she ran out of the building and into the cold rain. Someone touched her shoulder.

“Excuse me.”

Ester turned to find herself face-to-face with the guy. Her mouth went dry. His golden-brown eyes gazed into hers, narrow with suspicion. He must have taken over the lab while she was working and figured out she wasn’t a student. Instead of her rehearsed small-talk, he was busting her for using the lab. This was not the conversation she’d envisioned having with Mr. Super-Ind’n and she didn’t want it to continue.

“You in Kathleen Stone’s vis-comm class?” he asked.

The ground grew unsteady under her feet. Instead of a gray hoodie, he wore a gray T-shirt, the filmy kind that clung everywhere. His chest was ridiculous. Out in the cold air, her ears stung, and he stood there without a coat. She slipped a hand into her pocket for her hat, then stopped when her fingers touched the fuzz of the frayed wool. No way would she put on the dingy hat in front of this guy.

Whenever she complained about getting nervous talking to guys, Rayanne would say, Act natural. Don’t over-think it.

Ester didn’t know how to act natural. She shook her head.

“Which class, then?” His voice wasn’t what she expected. She’d imagined pure bass but this was more baritone, warm and buttery. She guessed he had a nice singing voice. What was the question again?

“I have a conference call?” she said, not sure why she made it sound like a question. Who knew what the punishment was for using someone else’s login? What if they kicked her off campus? That would make going to work a challenge.

“Are you in the digital arts class?”

“Nice talking to you,” she said. She turned around and considered how it would look if she sprinted across the greenway.

“Hang on,” he called. His hand tapped on her shoulder again. “You forgot this.”

Brawny guy held her portable hard drive. The drive was common except for the round sticker with the Crooked Rock Urban Indian Center logo on it.

She stared at it. His hand was huge. She wanted to put hers next to it to compare.

He said, “If you don’t take it, I have to plug it in and snoop through all the files to figure out who it belongs to.”

“It’s mine,” she said, trying to remember whether she had any files worth snooping. There were a few he might find interesting. Her fingertips grazed his palm when she took the drive.

“One more question,” he said.

This time she looked at him. He wore a gray knit cap with a Pacific-Northwest-style whale on it. She’d seen similar caps at the crafts market in the park. His eyebrows knitted together like an angry cartoon character, equal parts menace and humor.

Brawny guy pointed his chin at her. “You in the Native American student group?”

“Not really,” Ester said

“But you’re Native.”

Ester nodded.

“From where?”

“Eastern Shoshone.”

“Wyoming?”

Ester nodded again.

“I’m Theo,” he said. “Jicarilla Apache. I lived on the rez when I was a kid.”

She knew she was supposed to share something about her background except she didn’t want to get into it right then. If she had social skills like a normal person, she might steer the conversation in another direction but instead her brain ground to a halt. She tried to smile but sensed that she was peeling her lips back from her teeth while the corners of her mouth twitched.

She couldn’t tell whether the conversation was finished. She asked, “Do you have to go back to work?”

“Work?” Theo smiled as if he’d heard something amusing. “You mean lab assistant? Nah, that job didn’t work out.”

“Oh, sorry,” Ester said.

“The guy in charge of the lab assistants would rather schedule the lady students. I lost out.” Theo shrugged.

Ester stared at his mouth and the hard line of his jaw, the way the muscles worked in his neck, the goose bumps that covered his upper arm. He scrubbed his hand over it as if to brush them away. Her eyes flicked from his hand to his face. She’d never stood this close to someone so attractive.

“How about you?” he said. “You said you had a call.”

“I do,” she said, the importance of her work at the office flooding back to her. “I have to get going. Thanks for bringing my drive…” She patted her backpack and edged away. “Theo,” she added because she wanted to say his name.