Servant by Rebecca Royce

One

Maci

It was impossible to study when Rowan Kennedy was in the room. Not because he was gorgeous—arguably he was, but I had no time for such fleeting fantasies with finals next week—but because I wasn’t certain that he wasn’t about to set something on fire. The last thing I needed was to be the one to put out such a mess in the middle of the library the week before I’d have to take the hardest tests of my life so far. Junior year just sucked.

I had half an hour left before I had to go to work, where I’d spend the next four hours loading and unloading boxes at the grocery store. I was lucky to get that job, considering my mother had lost hers there in such a huge way. That was true at almost every place in a ten-mile radius. I was pretty sure the manager took pity on me.

I lifted my eyes to watch Rowan and his group laughing way too loudly at the table across from me. It was always the five of them together. Rowan seemed to be their leader, but I didn’t really know for sure. They never bothered me and I didn’t mess with them, which meant, other than knowing their names, that they were a grade ahead of me in school, and they looked ridiculously cute in the way rich people seemed to be, I’d never interacted with them at all.

Rowan Kennedy. Ace Monroe. Caesar Douglass. Griffin Gaines. Tanner Eastwick.

From day one, they’d been each other’s best friends and completely uninterested in the rest of the world, at least according to the gossips I could sometimes hear in low voices in the bathroom.

Not that I wanted the guys’ attention. I really didn’t. In one and a half years, I’d leave this town that time forgot—as I liked to think of it—and get the hell out of Kenton, Idaho. I planned to head anywhere else I could go. Someplace with actual working cellular data that didn’t require me to stand on top of our trailer to get a signal.

Even then, it only worked sometimes.

Lately, though, the five richest guys in town had started causing problems—big problems, like setting things on fire. Publicly and in front of people who should probably have put them in jail for doing so. Only nothing ever seemed to happen to them. Maybe they got away with it because Ace’s father was the mayor? If I set fire to something, like Rowan had, or trashed cars up and down main street in broad daylight, the way Caesar had, I would’ve been arrested.

The police chief never held back before arresting anyone from my trailer park, particularly my mother. I chewed on my lip as I thought about her. She might even be in jail right then, for all I knew.

Griffin threw a book at Tanner’s head, who then jumped to his feet like he was going to pound on him.

“Stop.” I spoke the word before I could overthink it, or I would’ve never addressed them at all. Part of them leaving me alone, so I never had to bother with them, meant I actually had to follow through—I never spoke to them or brought attention to myself.

But I’d just broken my own unspoken rule. I swallowed. Whoops.

Five sets of eyes regarded me all at once, Rowan and Ace having to turn around to do so.

Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound.“Sorry. Look, this is the library.” Thank you, Captain Obvious. Internally, I winced. “And we have finals next week. I know that you guys are pretty much done with school. Graduating in a few weeks.” Griffin was the valedictorian, if I wasn’t mistaken. “But I have to get this done, so whatever you’re going to do, could you take it outside? Please? Like, destroy something outside, because I have a very limited amount of time to actually learn what I need to know for this test. Please?”

According to all of the YA books I’d read, this would be the part where one of them would suddenly become my bully. They’d decide they needed to pick on me, and we would fall into a destructive pattern that would leave me ultimately destroyed. At least until I rose up to become some sort of spy or something.

Maybe I’d read too much fiction because that wasn’t what happened next.

Rowan nodded. “My apologies. You’re right.”

I swallowed. Well, that is unexpected. What am I supposed to say now? “Okay.”

“You’re Maci Green, right?” Griffin rose from his seat. “You’re in my math class, which makes you two years ahead in math.”

He took the seat across from me, pulling the chair back with a squeak. Griffin towered over his friends by a few inches. Long, lean, and fit, he had huge green eyes to go with the blond hair he pulled up in a bun on top of his head. In addition to being his class valedictorian, he was also captain of the track team. I never had time for extracurriculars, not in addition to my work schedule. I envied him his time and the way that he felt perfectly confident answering questions in class. Sometimes, he even argued with the teacher because the way they were teaching was wrong.

As though he didn’t care at all if he might be considered rude.

“That’s me.” I looked down at my book. “Sorry to have interrupted. I just…”

He held up his hand. “You were right. Rowan apologized. We’re all sorry. I’ve always wanted to talk to you. But for reasons, I didn’t. Now that you’ve talked to us, I’ve decided to start doing it.”

From their table, Ace groaned and got up to join us. “If you’ve never talked to Griffin before, then you don’t know he’s an arrogant ass. Give him two seconds, and he’s going to tell you about how he’s the valedictorian.”

What was funny about how Ace said it was that the other three all said it with him, like they were reciting it together because they’d heard it so much. I tried and failed not to grin at that, which must have been the right move because Ace grinned back at me.

He was also tall—well, it wasn’t hard to be taller than me at my tiny five feet—but I’d have put him at six feet, at least. He had dark hair and darker eyes. He took a seat next to Griffin. “You wanted to study, but now you have our attention. We have to talk to you because if a pretty girl gives you attention, as a male member of our species, we are obligated to at least spend a few minutes talking to her.”

Griffin rolled his eyes. “I might be an arrogant ass, but you’re a ridiculous flirt.” He put out his hand. “I’m Griffin; that’s Ace.”

Thoughts of my studies rapidly fled. I’d never had so much attention all at once before. One by one, they sat down at my table, surrounding me, with Rowan taking the last seat to my left and Tanner to my right. Caesar sat on the very end of the table.

Griffin pointed at all of them. “Rowan. Caesar. Tanner.”

I nodded. “I know who you all are. I mean…everyone does.”

Rowan leaned toward me. “Do they? Why? We’re completely normal. Nothing to remark on or write home about.”

“Um, you’ve been setting things on fire.”

Caesar shoved at his shoulder. “Yes, you have.”

“Like you haven’t been…” He waved his hand. “Good point, we need to be more discreet.” He closed his eyes for a second. “Even when it’s hard.” Having stated that, he lifted his lids. “Are we bothering you, Maci? You can tell us to leave.” He put his arm across the back of my chair. “We’d probably even go.”

Tanner shook his head. “Speak for yourself. I’m going to stay here and get to know Maci. Pretty name.”

“My mother thought she was naming me after the department store. She always thought they had the prettiest shoes, but she didn’t know how to spell it. So…that’s me.”

Caesar lifted an eyebrow. “Great story, actually.”

I couldn’t believe I’d just told it. I never explained my mother’s thinking in naming me. “Listen, I have to… I have to study, then I have to go to work, but I really like talking to you.” Since my best friend Stacy’s mother had committed suicide and she’d gone to live with her grandmother in Iowa, I really didn’t have friends to talk to in a real or fun way. There was the way that I spoke to my teachers, the way that I addressed my superiors at work, and then there was the little I communicated with my mother.

But my peers didn’t talk to me.

Unfortunately, I was just one of the lost trailer kids in town. We didn’t do much or go places and weren’t thought of by most people. Even within that community, they hated my mother and left me alone.

Always alone.

“Where do you work?” Rowan hadn’t moved his arm or indicated in any way that he was going to do as I asked and leave me to study. Even though Griffin had been the one to walk over first, I still got the impression they all took their cues from Rowan. Maybe it was the way each of them looked at him every so often, as though they needed to check for his approval.

Maybe Griffin wouldn’t have come over if he hadn’t already known somehow it was okay with Rowan. I didn’t always get the social cues of large groups—what was said, what wasn’t, and how everyone either understood the rules or didn’t. One-on-one, I did just fine, but I spent so little time in groups, I didn’t have practice with this type of thing.

“Hedge’s,” I answered him, naming the local grocery store. He’d know what I meant. There wasn’t another grocery store for fifty miles, so even the rich people got their food from Hedge’s unless they wanted to drive for an hour every time they ran out of milk.

“I’ve never seen you there,” Tanner said.

Ace nodded. “Right. Me neither, and I go every Wednesday.”

They do their own grocery shopping?I didn’t know why that surprised me, since I did mine as well. I guessed I thought most parents did the shopping rather than the kids. Or their housekeepers or something? Or even have their groceries delivered?

“I’m in the back. I load and unload.” Studying was probably not going to happen. I’d done this to myself by addressing them. Even if they were just doing this because I was a temporary interest to them for a few minutes, I didn’t mind the attention. I was usually so diligent, so this was downright strange behavior from me.

Ace shook his head. “You’re five foot nothing. How in the hell do they have you loading and unloading anything?”

Before I could answer, Griffin groaned. “You can’t say that to her. That’s not polite.”

“Who cares about polite? It’s true. I’m horrified they have her lifting. I mean, how do you get the boxes up high?”

I lifted an eyebrow. “It’s called a ladder.”

They all laughed this time, even Ace, who shook his head at the same time. He looked like he’d like to say more, but Rowan shook his head too, so Ace stopped. Aha. I’m right. They follow his lead, but why?

“So should we all study until she has to go?” Rowan rose and walked over to the table where they had been sitting and came back with everyone’s books. He passed Griffin a bag, from which Griffin pulled out a laptop. It was always crazy to me that people had their own. I had to use the ones at the library, but at least I had a phone. An old one, but it worked.

All of us started to look down at things we had to study. Or at least I pretended to. How was I supposed to concentrate when they were all there with me? Rowan smelled great, Ace kept drawing my attention just by the way that he read, and Griffin typed lightly on his computer, which was actually a comforting sound. I was pretty sure Tanner wasn’t really reading his book but was instead looking at me from under his lids, while Caesar wrote frantically into a notebook.

Suddenly, all of it stopped.

They went terribly still, and Rowan eventually sighed quietly.

“My father is here, isn’t he?” he asked Tanner, who was looking away from us, toward the entrance to the library.

“Yes.” He crossed his hands in front of him. “And I’m not sure for how long. He might have been there for a while, we just didn’t notice him.”

Rowan nodded. “He’s not alone, right?”

“Ace’s dad is behind him.” Tanner practically groaned.

How had Rowan known without looking? I shifted in my seat a little, and sure enough, there was his father. Edwin Kennedy owned most of the town, including the trailer park where I lived. He was a businessman of some kind, tall, pale, big-eyed, and scary. Behind him stood Ace’s father, Vincent Monroe. He was some sort of academic, a professor or something. It was amazing how little I knew about these people when it came down to it.

He also had the same pale look as Edwin.

All five guys jumped to their feet practically in unison, grabbing their stuff and moving toward the waiting men. But the two men weren’t looking at my temporary companions. No, they seemed to only have eyes for me. I shivered and dropped my gaze from them. I’d never wanted to not make eye contact with people so much in my life.

Caesar met my gaze for one second, a worried look crossing his face before he steeled his expression and followed the rest of them out of the library. They walked in a straight line, backs stiff, with Ace’s father and then Rowan’s father finally exiting after them. My mouth fell open. That had been a strange interaction. What had just happened?

Were they not allowed to be in the library? Or was the problem because they’d been sitting with me? Maybe it had nothing to do with me at all, some sort of internal rich boy issues that I didn’t need to know anything about.

My phone dinged, reminding me that I had to go to work. I silenced it and collected my stuff. It had been the strangest day.

In a good way. Kind of.

* * *

I’d putaway the third box of toilet paper when I collided with Ace. It took me a second to realize he stood there, even as he grabbed my arms to keep me upright.

“Hey.” He smiled. “Had to see for myself how you take those boxes up the ladder without killing yourself.”

I blinked, our earlier conversation coming back to me. I shook my head, pulled out of his hands to grab a box, and did just what he wanted to see, even skipping the bottom rung on my way down just to show him that I could.

He raised a dark eyebrow. “Okay. Point taken.”

I mock curtsied. “See? I can go up and down ladders carrying boxes.”

Ace leaned against the wall, watching me. “Why don’t they let you work as a cashier or stocking the shelves out there on the main floor or, I don’t know, the bakery? You could wear one of those hats!” “Hats?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

He sort of pantomimed over his head. “You know, the white hats.”

It took me a second to follow what he was saying. “Oh, a chef’s hat or something? No, I mean, have you ever seen anyone in the bakery wearing that? It’s more like plastic sanitary things that hold their hair back. Besides, I can’t have those jobs.”

“The chef’s hat would be cool.” Ace walked past me and sat down on the rung of the ladder I’d skipped. “Why can’t you have one of those jobs?”

I sighed. “Because my mother is really bad at keeping jobs and she tends to make things really difficult for me when I need to find one. They don’t mind me working here as long as I stay in the back.”

His laugh surprised me, and then he shook his head. “Like the dirty little secret they keep in the back where no one has to see it? I am actually familiar with that feeling.”

I almost scoffed, but the truth was I had no idea about his life. None. Maybe they did keep him locked in the back of the house or something. “I’m not complaining. It’s a job. I keep the lights on, eat some food, and in a year, I’ll be where you are—waiting to leave here.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “I’m sorry about earlier. It was rude of us to just go like that. First, we disrupted your studying, then we ran off. I wanted to say I was sorry about that.”

I opened and closed my mouth. My supervisor might be coming to check on me any second. “That’s okay. It was fun to talk to you. I…I don’t talk to a lot of people, and you could have been mean to me but you weren’t.”

He blinked. “If you knew who I am, who I really am, you wouldn’t want me to be nice to you.”

“Why not?”

Just then, the door opened. My supervisor, Trey, entered the room. He was a nice man, forty-ish, married, and I was pretty sure I’d caught my mother giving him a blow job in the back of our trailer before he’d taken off running too fast for me to be sure it was him. He remained nice to me and had never done anything to make me uncomfortable, but I really hoped he wasn’t expecting that I, in turn, would be down for getting on my knees and servicing him, because I absolutely wasn’t.

“Trey.” I smiled. “Sorry, I…”

Turning around, I didn’t see Ace anywhere. It was like he’d vanished. The window was open, as it sometimes was because it got so warm, but I hadn’t been the one to wrench it open this time. I smiled. That was how he must have gotten in—through the same window he’d used to leave.

Okay. Ace was rather good at sneaking around.

“Nothing to be sorry about. Looks like you got most of it done. You can take off for the night.” He smiled. “Get home safe.”

“Ah, thanks.” Had that much time passed already? Sometimes nights dragged and sometimes they went fast. This was one of the latter. I would go home, eat something, get some sleep, and do it all again tomorrow.

But it was almost summer, so I could work more, which meant saving for my eventual out plan. I grabbed my coat, not that I’d needed it, since it was seventy degrees outside, but sometimes I froze if they overdid it with the AC.

I walked out into the night. The moon hung full in the sky, but it didn’t hold my attention.

Not when Ace leaned against my car.

“You got out of there fast.”

He grinned. “I’m sneaky. Snuck out of my house tonight, for example. It’s what I do.”

Well, that was obvious. He’d gone through the window like an expert. “Why did you guys have to jet out of the library like that? Did you do something wrong? Your father showed up, and you ran.”

“Oh, I wondered if you were sure who we were talking about?”

That was a deflection if ever I’d heard one. Question for a question, but we’d just met, and I was prying.

I decided to act like I didn’t notice. “Everyone knows who your father is, and Rowan’s father. I would have recognized the other dads, too. You guys are the rich folks in town. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. Between you and me, there is a world of difference with most other people falling in the middle. I guess your dad is sort of a celebrity just for being who he is.”

Ace rocked back on his feet. “Well…that is more unfortunate than you’ll ever know. If there ever were people that others shouldn’t know, it’s my dad and his friends. Sometimes he notices what I do, and sometimes he doesn’t. This is one of those times that he’s noticing, and not for good reasons. When they show up places, we just leave. It’s easier on everyone.” He patted my car. “Goodnight, Maci. Be careful getting home. Look over your shoulder when you walk to your door. Extra caution, always. You never know what’s out in the darkness.”

I stepped toward him. “That’s very sweet, but I don’t think anyone wants to hurt me. There are better people to rob.”

“If only it was just that you might get robbed.”

I supposed he had a point. Terrible things could happen. A whole bunch of fucking scary things. “Goodnight, Ace. Today has been…different.”

“For me, too. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m very glad to have met you today. Drive safe.”

Did he like me? That was the question I asked myself as I drove away. I mean…guys paid attention when they liked you. No, it wasn’t possible. He was vague and a little off, but then again, so was I, when it came down to it. Ace was gorgeous. I wasn’t ugly, but maybe not pretty enough to have caught his eye that way.

I had dark hair and dark eyes. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see anything special. My breasts were mid-sized, maybe a little large for my size, and my hips matched them. A little rounder than was fashionable, but I was obviously strong and certainly not offensive to look at. Could he like me? Was that why he showed up at my work?

It was dangerous to get my hopes up, but there it was. My hopes. Going up. I locked my car after I pulled into the driveway. It was really my mom’s car, but she was missing, so she didn’t need it anyway. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was there as I made it to my front door. Shaking my head, I let my anxiety go. We didn’t have a crime problem, other than my mom and people like her doing a string of petty crimes that put them in and out of jail.

Nothing serious, mostly minor drug offenses. It was a transient town. People came and went a lot. We didn’t see or hear from them again.

An envelope was taped to the door with my name on it. I grabbed it, not recognizing the handwriting, unlocked my door, and entered the trailer. It was hot, so before I could look at whatever it was in the envelope, I turned on the AC unit in the window. It would be a few minutes before it did any good.

A note fell out of the envelope when I opened it.

Question for you…

Molly is in charge of a group of miners. There has been a cave-in. Four people, including Molly, survive, but one miner, Jen, is injured. She needs medical help. It will be 36 hours until anyone can reach them. Molly knows they have enough oxygen for 3 people to survive 36 hours, but not enough for 4 people to survive that long. Should Molly kill Jen to save the others?

What do you think?

Sorry for the weird way we had to leave today. Tell me your answer in math class. —GG

I blinked. He’d left me an ethical dilemma, a famous one. The cave-in dilemma. Huh. I grinned. Why had Griffin done this? The same questions I had about Ace struck me about Griffin. They couldn’t both like me. Maybe this was a friend thing.

Had I somehow stumbled into making some friends today?

I grabbed a pen to answer him.