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Renegade Path
Author: Autumn Jones Lake

 

Dedication

 

 

Sometimes the most beautiful souls are the most broken.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

Roman

 

 

I fell in love for the first time when I was seventeen.

One simple mistake altered the course of my future, of my very existence.

Until that day, feelings had always seemed irrelevant and illogical. My world was too dark and chaotic for something as obscure as love to develop.

It was my first day at another new high school. That made—three? four? —this year alone.

The locker I’d been assigned wouldn’t open no matter how many times I spun the combination or slammed my filthy, worn boot into the rusty metal front.

“Do you mind?” A soft voice came from beside me.

I glanced down. Five-feet-nothing of waist-length red-gold hair, soft blue eyes, and freckles stared up at me. A smile played over her full pink lips that I already had an urge to kiss.

“I can’t get it open.”

Amusement flickered over her stern expression. “Maybe that’s because it’s my locker.”

“No, it’s not.” Even though I already had a bad feeling in my gut that she was right, I handed over the yellow slip of paper I’d been given this morning.

“Hmm.” She tapped her finger against that plump bottom lip that I wanted to suck into my mouth and run my tongue against. “It says seventy-six, but that can’t be right.”

She stepped forward, not at all intimidated by my size—I had to be at least a foot taller than her. Her warm shoulder brushed against my chest, and her long hair tickled my arm. She smelled like flowers after a rainstorm. I’m not ashamed to admit I stood there and inhaled her.

The lock clicked, and she opened the door. “See? It’s my locker. My combination works on it. Yours doesn’t.”

“Well, shoot.”

She grinned at me. “What’s your name?”

“Roman.”

Laughter spilled out of her. “I’m Juliet. I’ll tell you what, Roman, I’m willing to share my locker with you. If you promise not to leave any gross boy things in it.”

I scratched the back of my neck. “Give me an example of a ‘gross boy thing.’”

“Uh, dirty socks.”

“No problem.”

“Jockstraps.”

A grin threatened to break free at the corners of my mouth. “Don’t have one.”

“Anything smelly.”

“Okay.”

Pink raced over her cheeks, and I wondered what else she was going to say, but instead, she shook her head. “Welcome to locker seventy-six, roomie.”

She held out her hand. I took it, meaning to give a quick shake. Instead, an electric current of attraction sparked between us. I stood there staring into her eyes, trying to decide if they were turquoise or teal, and stroked her soft skin.

“Thank you, Juliet.” I loved the way her name felt rolling off my tongue.

She didn’t jerk her hand away, and she held my gaze.

I made up my mind right then and there.

One day, I’m going to marry this girl.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Roman

 

 

Protect.

That’s all I wanted to do once I laid eyes on Juliet. She consumed my thoughts as I drifted through my morning classes. Her laughter played over and over in my head. Her smile. Her kind eyes.

And then there she was. Waiting for me by the lockers, under the glare of cheap fluorescent lights. She was so damn tiny. Defenseless and innocent. An unfamiliar urge thrummed through my veins—to scoop her up and carry her away.

People seemed to avoid her, which both bothered and pleased me. I wanted her to myself, but I also wanted to kill anyone who hurt her feelings.

“How is your first day progressing?” The corners of her mouth twitched, but I didn’t feel like she was mocking me. More like we were both in on the same joke.

“Lame. Just as boring as the last three schools.”

Her eyes widened. “Why so many? Do your parents move around a lot?”

My eyes darted away. I didn’t like talking about my situation. It was one of those things that made people uncomfortable and eager to get away from the conversation. But I sensed I could trust Juliet.

“I live at the group home over on Pine,” I explained in a lowered voice. “Foster care. Before that, I stayed with a few families. None of ’em stuck.”

My story was more complicated than that. Ten years, twelve different families, and three separate group homes to be exact. But I feared sharing too much, getting too real, might scare her away.

Sadness clouded her eyes. “I live with my aunt and uncle. Not the same thing, but I understand what it feels like…not to…”

I waited for her to finish, anticipating what she’d say.

“Feel wanted,” she finished.

She’d never have to worry about that again. I wanted her like nothing I’d ever wanted in my life.

But I had absolutely nothing to offer her.

No family. No money. Hell, I didn’t even have access to a vehicle to take her out on a date. I had the clothes on my back and a few other things stuffed in a drawer at the home. My luggage was a Hefty bag. I’d had a job lined up at the last place I lived, but that was gone now.

“Sucks, right?” I said to fill the silence between us.

Her lips curved up in a soft smile. “It’s not so bad. One day I’ll have my own family, and I’ll know all the right things to give them.”

The longing in her voice hit me on a primal level. I didn’t understand what having a family meant. It had always seemed too unattainable. But the way Juliet talked about it made me want to figure it out. With her.

I’d never had the luxury of thinking that far ahead in my life.

I was too busy surviving from one day to the next. But Juliet made me want to think ahead. She made me hope for things I’d been afraid to admit to myself I even wanted.

Before I opened my mouth and offered to make some babies with her, someone slammed into me from behind. My shoulder hit the corner of the open locker door and I narrowly missed knocking Juliet over.

“Watch it, new guy,” the brawny football player I’d showed up in gym class earlier said. He high-fived his equally jackass friends.

It wasn’t pride that forced me to go after him. I didn’t care that Juliet saw me get shoved like a little kid.

No, it was blind rage. That fucker had pushed me right into her. She could’ve been hurt, and he did it without thinking.

I’d been pushed around enough at that point in my life. By foster parents, teachers, other kids. I’d learned early that the world was cruel.

I also learned not to take shit from anyone.

If you couldn’t stand up for yourself, no one would do it for you. And if I couldn’t defend myself, how could I protect anyone else?

“Roman—” Juliet said, but I was already sailing through the air, tackling Doug to his knees and punching him in the side.

The violence in my eyes and fists made his two buddies back away instead of helping their unfortunate friend.

Two teachers and a security guard pulled me off the kid, but I still kept fighting.

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