Mia had just finished having a quick bite at Barril y Botella, a tapas joint near school. Time to head back to her daily 4pm study group. Oddly enough, the study group sessions had become the favorite part of her day. It was where she felt most comfortable. Something about working with others without having the true pressure to socialize.
She had just crossed a traffic light when she felt light footsteps behind her. She turned around to see three men approaching and staring right at her. Instantly, fear shot through her as she tried to dismiss it. Had she seen wrong? Imagined that look? It couldn’t be. Could it?
“Ey sexy, a dónde vas?” one of the men growled.
No, it was definitely real. Mia simply kept walking and soon enough felt them at her heels. This time she picked up the pace and took in a big gulp of air.
Keep it together. They’re probably just messing around, she thought.
“Sólo queremos hablar. We just want to talk for a second. Get to know each other better,” another of the men said.
Eeek! Mia scanned her surroundings and noticed they were alone, the streets were completely deserted. Spaniards always took their mid-day siestas seriously, most shops didn’t open again until 5pm. Just my luck, she thought.
“Ey, que te estamos hablando. Your ass is pretty enough, but I wanna see that sweet face of yours.”
Time to panic! At those last words, Mia’s flight instinct took over and did what she knew best.
She hadn’t gotten far when she felt her arm being jerked back abruptly. Pain coursed through as she tried to pull away, feeling like her shoulder was being ripped out of its socket. Instantly, she started kicking her legs when she felt a huge blow to her head causing her to come crashing down on the floor. The impact of hard concrete on her small frame was awfully painful.
“Quieta! Stay still bitch. If you cooperate, this won’t take long.” The snarl in his tone was sickening.
“No me toques!” Mia managed to blurt out once the realization hit. But it was too late. One of the men pinned her tightly to the floor while the two others stared at her with pure vulgarity.
Oh God, think Mia. Flashes of a conversation she had with an old Israeli friend came to mind. Itay had been in the army and worked in secret service for the Israeli consulate in New York. What had he told her to do in these situations? Desperately trying to remember, it came to her. It’s now or never.
“You don’t want to do this. I have AIDS and will infect you.” Mia’s words distracted him enough to loosen his grip on her.
Time for act two. With all her might, she punched him right in the throat and he instantly crouched over, gasping for air.
Oh my God, that actually worked! She scrambled off of the floor and started running with all of her might.
“Joder!” She heard one of the thugs yell from a distance, but nothing would stop her now. She managed to cross the street over the traffic and continued running up the path toward school, as fast as she could.
She risked a quick glance over her shoulder to see if they were following her but nothing came into sight. Before she could straighten her view again, she felt herself crash into hard planes of muscle.
“Leo, thank God you’re here!”A frightened girl yelled out, and instantly clung to his arms, hugging him and burying her face into his chest.
He was completely taken by surprise, yet instinctively held her tightly against him. All he could see at the moment was a long mane of dirty blond hair that trickled down the length of his body. He grabbed her face, lifted her chin, and looked into a pair of big brown eyes he instantly recognized. It caused him immediate pause.
“Mia? What’s wrong?”
Her eyes were teary, she had a panicky face, and could barely speak. “Some… guys…attacked me,” she said shuddering.
He looked over her and noticed three men approaching across the street. They were older and appeared to be in their 40s. They were dressed in poor looking black leather jackets and beaten up jeans. He recognized them to be Spanish gypsies. He had heard stories of them looming around the school’s bars and restaurants and apparently they were making a profitable business out of stealing student backpacks and laptops.
He quickly spun Mia behind him, holding onto the small of her back. Delicate hands gripped against his arms, and he could hear her breathing heavily behind him. Her small frame felt tiny against his torso. Evidently, they had found their next victim in her. Not today boys, he thought as he flexed his biceps. God knows he had been itching for a good fight and this would provide the perfect excuse.
He noticed something flash and his vision honed in on it. One of the men had discreetly pulled out a switchblade and held it menacingly at his side.
Jesus Christ. Who the hell are these guys? Leo responded by griping Mia closer and was overwhelmed by this strange feeling that was overcoming him. Protection?
“That’s right assholes, she’s with me. So keep dreaming,” he shouted back at them. He cracked his knuckles and balled his hands into fists. Adrenaline shot through his veins. He was ready.
The men continued moving towards them at a faster pace and Leo started contemplating his next move. He could fight them but that would leave Mia unprotected. Could he handle all three of them at once?
They could run back to school, but he didn’t know if she was fast enough. No, it didn’t look like it. Nonetheless, it seemed like the easiest choice but he didn’t want to show them any sign of fear. Maybe it was better to keep his ground.
All of a sudden cop sirens went off at a distance, and the thugs instantly scrammed. “Tenéis suerte. You got lucky this time, bitch. But we’ll be back.”
Leo was about to yell something back at them, but he felt Mia wince behind him and decided against it. He waited until they were out of sight to turn her around. He pulled her into him, and grabbed her face again. “You okay?”
Still completely frazzled, she tried to act tough. “Yeah … I’m fine.”
She was obviously not and Leo saw through it. He carefully inspected her hands and face and noticed she had cuts and bruises. She probably fell before, but he didn’t want to ask or mention anything. It would probably scare her even more.
“Don’t worry, you’re safe now, okay?”he reassured her.
She nodded, too overcome to speak, as the situation probably dawned on her.
“Did they steal your bag?”
She shook her head this time. “Left it at school,” she murmured.
Holy shit. That could only mean they wanted to … he didn’t even let himself finish that thought.
“C’mon, let’s get you inside.” He put his arm around her and led her back inside school. They walked in silence as he tried to take everything in.
He took her to the nearest bathroom and she immediately went straight to the sink, putting her hands and head down over it.
Leo was not sure what to do. “Um, I’ll go get you a coke. I’ll be right back.”
He ran to the vending machine outside and fumbled through his pockets for coins. Images flashed into his head of the thugs hurting Mia and her falling to the floor. Anger took over him. How could anyone even think of hurting her? What if he hadn’t been there to help her?
Okay, get it together, he thought. He took a deep breath and walked back to the bathroom, only to find Mia still glued to the sink in the same position as before. She was in shock.
“Mia, here let me help you.” He put down the coke and turned the faucet on. He poured some soap into his hands and started washing her hands with it, gently soothing over her scrapes.
He couldn’t believe what he was doing and apparently neither could Mia, she just stared at him blankly.
He turned her arms over and grimaced when he saw she had deeper scratches near her elbows. “I’m gonna need you to bring your arms closer to the sink,” he said.
Mia quickly complied and he poured more soap in his hands.
“This might sting a bit.” His hands traced over her arms, leaving a faint trail of goose bumps behind. She was clearly still filled with lingering fear. Once he was done, he splashed water over her arms to drain out the soap.
He then grabbed a paper towel and ran it through the faucet. He pulled her close to him and lifted up her chin, before he slowly dabbed it at a cut on her face.
Mia instantly stiffened and diverted her gaze from him. He hadn’t realized how close their proximity was until he felt her shiver against him.
“Easy, Mia. I’m almost done, I promise,” he whispered. He grabbed her face and softly turned it to the side. He felt her swallow as he applied the paper towel at a spot near her temple and then she completely held her breath when he dabbed at her neck, just below her ear. It appeared to be really painful to her.
He cursed as he discarded the blood and dirt stained paper towel in the garbage dispenser. Thankfully she hadn’t seen it as she was facing the other direction. He reached for another paper towel and dried her off.
“Okay, you’re all set,” he said, trying to keep a poker face. Inside, he felt all different kinds of emotions coursing through.
She managed to faintly smile as she finally turned to look at him. She looked shocked as hell, but there was also something so sweet and innocent about her. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Before he could stop himself, the word he had been thinking of poured out of him. “Sweetness, you’re shaking. Are you cold?”
Mia hadn’t even seemed to realize it. Before she could answer, he took off his favorite red sweatshirt and put it on her. She wasn’t moving so he pulled her arms through the sleeves. He carefully zipped it up and their eyes met again, this time more intensely. It was unnerving how those incredible light brown eyes seemed to do things to him.
She finally reacted. “I … think I need to … sit down.” She immediately fell to the floor and put her head on her knees.
Leo grabbed the coke and sat down right next to her, folding his arm around her. His gut reactions kept on surprising him. “Here … you need this.” A soft hiss erupted as he opened the can, and then placed it in her hand.
“Thank you. Leo, you have no idea…”
“Thank me later. Just try to relax okay? You’re completely safe, no one is going to hurt you. I’m here now.”
Was he actually saying this?
“I believe you,” she replied.
They passed some time in silence, Mia sipping slowly on the coke. Her shivers had subdued and then completely stopped. He tried to not concentrate on the feel of her against him, but it just felt so good. Not to mention the smell of her, it startled his senses. Her body wrapped securely underneath his was inexplicably soothing.
She sighed and placed the can on the floor and leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder. He pulled her even tighter against him and reached for her hand, switching between tracing idle patterns on the back of it and playing with her watch.
When she finally seemed to warm up, he tried to break the silence. “You know that sweatshirt looks really good on you.” He playfully pulled the hood over her head and she smiled.
“Do I look more badass now?” she said peeking back at him timidly.
“Whatever makes you feel better … I guess my lame attempt to distract you worked,” he laughed.
Almost immediately he asked, “How come we’ve never really hung out before? I mean besides at the study room … and I guess our brief encounter at the printers.”
Mia looked embarrassed and thought about it briefly. “Sorry if I was rude that time. I’m usually really shy and awkward.”
Leo’s eyes widened. “How can you be shy? That makes absolutely no sense.”
“Why not? I guess I can’t help it. I’m just naturally shy and self-conscious,” Mia confessed.
He looked at her in disbelief. “What are you saying? You’re a pretty girl. That alone should give you all the confidence in the world.”
Mia seemed confused. “I don’t see it like that. What does it matter anyway?”
“I can’t believe you think that. You obviously don’t see yourself very clearly. Why do you think those cowards were chasing you down the street?” he said, shaking his head. “I bet you anything most guys are too intimidated to talk to you. At least I was. And that’s probably why we’ve never really hung out before.”
He was being way to honest. Something about her was making him completely open up to her.
“You think I’m pretty?” she asked scrunching her forehead.
So she had caught that particular sentence. He was about to shrug it off like it was no big deal, but found himself saying something completely different. “I think you’re beautiful.”
Shit, Leo. Too much information, he thought. He looked at her a bit embarrassed and she stared back at him in shocked silence. But then for the first time since he met her, he saw her truly smile and it was absolutely stunning. Her cheeks soon turned red, and she ended up looking away from him. So far, she was turning out to be nothing like the ice princess he had expected her to be. He idly wondered what else she had in store for him.
“Are you sure you didn’t hit your head?” she whispered.
“No, I’m pretty sure that was you. I would also recommend a visit to the eye doctor, something is a bit off there too,” he said nudging her.
“Why are you being so nice to me? It’s already enough you saved my life,” she said, picking at the sleeves of his sweatshirt.
“Tell you what … how about I buy you dinner and we call it even? We can catch the early bird special,” he joked.
“How does that make it even? Now I’ll owe you even more.”
“You don’t owe me anything. Except dinner. Plus you’ll help make all the other guys from class jealous of me.” Leo stood up and offered his hand.
Mia hesitated for a beat and then took it.