Paige Arland slipped out of the East London student union. The cool night air hit her face—a welcome relief from the hot bodies and sweaty atmosphere inside the bar. She realised how much she’d drunk, and inwardly groaned. What was she thinking, getting this pissed on a Wednesday night? She had lectures in the morning, and getting up for them was going to be painful.
She glanced back at the door to the student union. It swung shut, and the music and excited chatter from inside dropped in volume. No one chased after her. No one called her name or pulled her back into the dimly lit, crowded space, insisting she stay.
No one had even noticed she’d gone.
Her stomach sank, and she sniffed. Only a few weeks had passed since she’d left home to start university, yet everyone already seemed to have made friends, while she was still on the outskirts of everything, looking in. The popular students had recognised each other and formed their own little gangs almost instantly, just like they did back home. Somehow, she’d convinced herself things would be different to being at college—thought people would be more mature—but of course they were still the same teenagers they’d been in their home towns, except now they had their own money and no parental supervision.
Even Jasmine—the one friend Paige thought she’d made—had been distracted tonight, spending more time flirting with Lucas Gill than chatting and dancing with her. Was she jealous? Maybe a little. She knew it was normal for people to start hooking up once they’d arrived at uni, but she didn’t want to be left out.
To cover her awkwardness, she’d had too many vodka and Cokes, and when someone had suggested shots, she’d found herself lining up at the bar, doing her best to appear as though she fitted in. She hated Jägerbombs, and yet somehow, she’d downed them and cheered with everyone else, trying to act as though she was having a good time when she was shrinking inside.
Paige reached into the tiny, impractical handbag slung over her shoulder. It was literally big enough for her phone, her bank card, and a couple of items of makeup. She wouldn’t have been able to fit anything substantial in there. Not that it mattered. She only needed those few things anyway. She closed her fingers around the smooth metal and glass of her phone, the weight comforting—like an old friend—and took it out. She checked the screen in case Jasmine or someone else had messaged her, wanting to know where she was, but no one had.
Paige opened the camera on the phone, using the selfie option as a mirror to check her reflection. Ugh. Her mascara had smeared halfway down her face, and her normally smooth brown locks had turned into a ball of frizz.
Feeling even worse, she slipped the phone back into her bag. She tried to do the bag up, but her fingers didn’t seem to be able to make the catch work. Fuck it. She didn’t have far to go to get back to the halls of residence where she was living. It was right across campus.
Things had never been easy back in her home town either, but still a pang of homesickness hit her. She’d always had the weight of her identity pressing on her shoulders. She’d carried it around with her most of her life, but at least back home she’d had a couple of school friends who hadn’t known or cared who she was and at the end of the night she’d been able to go back to the security of her own house. Stupidly, she’d convinced herself that by moving away, everything would be better. No one would know her. She’d deliberately come away to a university no one else in her town had chosen, hoping to leave the gossip and rumours behind her, thinking she could reinvent herself into a whole new person, but she was discovering she’d taken everything for granted. Maybe she could run from her past, but she couldn’t run away from who she was.
Fighting the wave of melancholy and nostalgia for home—which was mostly brought on by too much alcohol and not an actual love for the place—she kept going.
At least she didn’t have to go far to get to her room. She was staying on campus for her first year, with the hope she’d be able to get a flat share with some friends for her second.
Paige staggered slightly as she made her way through a walkway between a couple of the buildings. The university had been established in the 1800s and was a cobbled mixture of historical buildings, modern structures, and high-rises from the 1970s. While the main building that faced out onto the high street had a grand frontage and was all white stone pillars, tall windows, and ornate carvings, much of the rest of campus was far more run-down.
God, I’m drunk.
She tugged down on the short skirt of her dress, suddenly wishing she’d worn something less revealing. It was no different to anything any of the other girls had been wearing that night, and the outfit had felt good when she’d been in the bar, but now she was outside and alone, she suddenly became aware of the amount of leg that was exposed.
Her head swam, and she stumbled to one side, reaching for the wall to try to keep her balance. Shit. She should never have had that last drink. It was hitting her now.
She realised she wasn’t completely sure where she was. Had she gone the wrong way? The buildings all looked the same. She’d only been here a few weeks, but she should still know her way around campus. The music from the student union had faded, as had the talking and laughter from those hanging around the entrance. In the distance, towards the high street, came the rise and fall of the wail of a police or ambulance siren. It was one thing she’d discovered since moving here—it was never quiet. There was always an alarm or siren blaring somewhere.
Paige had no idea of the time. She’d guess anywhere between eleven and one. She had her phone in her bag, but the idea of getting it out to check seemed like a monumental effort. It was all she could do to stay upright.
Footsteps approached from behind, and her mood lifted in hope. Had Jasmine decided to come after her? She glanced over her shoulder, but her heart sank again. She recognised the person, but it wasn’t her friend.
“Oh, hi,” she greeted him, aware that he’d seen her glance over her shoulder and spot him. She knew him to say hello to, but nothing more. “Did you decide to call it a night as well?” She cringed inwardly at the slur in her words. Her lips didn’t seem to want to form them properly.
“I saw you leave.” He shoved his hands into his jeans’ pockets.
It was early October but was still reasonably warm. He had on a hoodie, though, while she wore a strappy dress, but she wasn’t cold. Maybe it was the alcohol. They’d all been drinking plenty.
“You did?” She shouldn’t be pleased someone had noticed her departure, but she was. Sometimes, she felt as though she were invisible, and that this boy—or young man, really—had actually seen her made her think perhaps she wasn’t.
“Of course. Thought I’d make sure you got back safe.”
For some reason, this struck her as funny, and she giggled. “I live right over there. I’m staying in halls.” She tried to lift her arm to point in the vague direction of her building, but her hand suddenly seemed to have a weight attached to it, supressing her movements.
They’d been walking while they talked, and she realised she was much closer to her building than she’d first thought. She hadn’t gone the wrong way after all.
Paige stumbled, and the young man was there, right beside her, his arm across her body, crushed against her breasts as he held her up.
“Careful,” he warned.
She wasn’t sure her legs would work anymore.
“Sorry,” she slurred. “I think I had too much to drink.”
They were so near to her building now. The large courtyard her room looked down onto was right ahead. She just needed to get a little farther and then she could fall into bed and regret her life choices in the morning.
He was still holding her, tighter than she thought was necessary. Their bodies seemed to be wedged hard together, his arm still across her breasts. His face was so close to hers, except he was much taller, and the idea that he was going to bend his head and sniff her hair went through her head. He was bigger than her—so much bigger. She’d never felt particularly small and dainty before, but the breadth of his shoulders made her feel like a twig.
“Fucking hell, you can barely walk. Am I going to have to carry you?”
A flicker of alarm went through her. “No, I’m okay. I just need to get to my room.”
It was right across the courtyard. It wasn’t far at all, but suddenly the distance seemed mammoth—an excursion up the Andes. A couple of benches were positioned around the empty space. Shops—a bookstore, a cafe, and a travel agent’s—were all in darkness and closed for the night. She realised she was looking for someone else, another person who could break this intense situation she’d found herself in. But the shops had been shut for hours, and everyone else was still in the student union, enjoying themselves. What time was it, anyway? She had no idea.
“Are you trying to get rid of me?” There was something in his tone, a new hardness that hadn’t been there before.
“No… I just want to go back to my room.”
“Yeah, we can do that. I’d like to see your room.”
When had she given him the idea that she wanted him to come with her? She wasn’t sure they’d even had a proper conversation before. There had been so many new people over the last few weeks, so many new names and faces. Her memories grew foggy, as though she was trying to see them through a haze.
Her head swam with confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, Paige. Don’t fuck around. You were giving me the eye back at the bar. You clearly wanted me to follow you.”
He knows my name…
“No, really. I just want to go back to my room,” she insisted.
He shrugged. “Yeah, that’s fine with me. We can go back to your room. It’s closer than mine.”
She tried to shake her head, but it felt heavy. That wasn’t what she meant, yet he was steering her across the courtyard.
“I want to go to bed.” She bit down on a sob at the end, her voice hitching.
His breath was hot against her ear. “I like the sound of that.”
He twisted everything she said. Why couldn’t she make him understand that wasn’t what she wanted? Had she done or said something to make him think she was interested? Had she flirted with him? She couldn’t remember, but her thoughts of that evening were muddied.
On one side of the courtyard were waist-high brick borders containing tall shrubbery to separate this area of the university from the walkways to the lecture halls beyond. She was no longer being led towards the front of her building, but instead was heading towards the dark shadows of the borders. There were no lights here, the streetlamps focused on the areas with the benches and outside of the other buildings. They would vanish into the shadows, and no one would even see them if they walked right past.
Fear gave her an extra burst of strength.
“I said no!”
She pushed him away, both hands against his chest. Her shove barely affected him at all, though he exclaimed in annoyance.
Her vision suddenly filled with his fist. Agony exploded through her nose in a burst of white stars. Paige staggered backwards, but his fingers tight around her arm prevented her from falling. Pain and shock filled her, combined with disbelief. He’d hit her! He couldn’t do that. People didn’t go around hitting each other.
And he wasn’t done yet.
He shoved her hard towards the borders, and then spun her round so she was facing away from him. The movement increased her vertigo, and she lurched to one side again. Only his hold on her kept her upright. The fronts of her thighs hit solid brick, and she half fell but managed to plant both palms on the rough surface of the top of the wall. He didn’t give her any time to recover, but instead crowded her in with his body, shielding her from any view of someone who might be passing by in the courtyard.
He growled from behind her. “You’re one of those bitches who plays hard to get, eh?”
She gave a little cry of fear, but her inebriated mind couldn’t seem to put together what she should be doing.
His body seemed so big, looming over her, smothering her. He shoved his hand under the skirt of her dress, his palm sweaty against the inside of her thigh.
His mouth hot and damp next to her ear. “I know what you really want.”
Paige whimpered. Her nose throbbed, pounding with the race of her pulse. Had she asked for this? How had she gone from feeling sorry for herself in the union to being punched in the face? Everything was a blur. She must have done something or said something for this to be happening.
His knee wedged between hers, forcing her feet apart. She gasped and tried to press back on him, but his weight pinned her further. The drag of her knickers scraped down her thighs, and he bent her over the low wall, so she was forced to use her hands to stop herself face-planting into the border of shrubs and dirt. The position made her dizzier and even sicker.
No, no, no.
The rip of a condom packet came from over her shoulder, followed by a quick fumble. His fingers gripped her hips, digging hard into her skin, and then there was pressure and pain, and violation.
This isn’t happening.
It couldn’t be happening. It was some kind of mistake. Had he taken her for someone else? It didn’t even seem to matter now. Nothing was getting him to stop. She felt utterly powerless.
She was barely aware of the strap of her bag still on her shoulder, the way it swung in time with every thrust.
Paige needed to take her mind somewhere else, just pretend something different was happening until this was over. But she couldn’t escape—mentally or physically. His weight was on her, his breath hot and alcohol-fuelled in her ear. He slammed his hips up against hers, and she bit down on her arm, stifling her cries. Maybe she should have screamed and cried for help. She should fight and stop him! But she couldn’t. She was utterly frozen in horror and disbelief, desperate for it to be over so she could forget it had ever happened.
How did he think this was all right?
She was torn, her soul seeking two different means of escape. She could take her mind away from this, lift herself into a dream world and distance herself from what was happening to her. Or she could do something—somehow get control of her limbs and mind and fight back.
She tightened her fingers on the edge of the brick wall.
All she knew was she would do anything to make him stop.