The Pucking Wrong Guy: Prologue



My heart was a heavy stone in my chest as I walked hand in hand with my case worker toward the looming group home. The gray sky mirrored my mood, and the air seemed colder than usual. It had been just a few weeks since I lost my parents, and the pain was still so fresh, it was an open wound that would never heal.

I didn’t see how it could.

The building was old and intimidating, its tall brick walls casting a shadow over the entrance. I swallowed hard, gripping my teddy bear even tighter to my chest for comfort. I wished I could turn back, that this was all just a bad dream, that I could go home and my parents would be waiting there with open arms.

My case worker, Ms. Thompson, squeezed my free hand gently. She had kind eyes and a warm smile, but they couldn’t chase away the sadness that clung to me like a second skin. ‘It’s going to be okay, sweetie,’ she whispered, her voice soft and soothing. I nodded, even though I didn’t really believe her.

I was here because there was no one who wanted me. She could say otherwise, try to be positive and comforting about all of this, but that was the truth. I was alone. I had no one.

As we stepped inside, the hallway seemed to stretch forever in both directions. The walls were a dull beige, and the fluorescent lights overhead buzzed like angry bees. It smelled kind of musty, like old paper and cleaning supplies. The place didn’t feel very welcoming.

Ms. Thompson led me toward a door at the end of the hallway, her footsteps echoing in the silence. We entered a small office where a stern-looking woman sat behind a desk cluttered with papers. She had gray hair pulled back into a tight bun, and her glasses perched on the edge of her nose.

‘Ah, Ms. Thompson,’ the woman said, her voice brisk. ‘This must be our new arrival.’ She glanced at me, her eyes briefly softening before pressing back into a tight line. Her sharp eyes bored into mine with an intensity that sent chills through my body.

‘Yes,’ Ms. Thompson replied, her tone respectful. ‘This is Layla.’

I shifted nervously from foot to foot, clutching my teddy bear even tighter. I wished Mom and Dad were here. They always knew how to make me feel safe.

The woman and Ms. Thompson exchanged a few whispered words that I couldn’t quite catch. My heart raced as I strained to listen, feeling like they were talking about something important.

‘I heard about her parents,’ the woman said, her voice low. ‘Such a tragedy.’

‘Yes. This one is definitely a more difficult case,’ Ms. Thompson replied, her voice filled with sympathy.

“Have they figured out why he killed her?”

I felt a lump forming in my throat, and I stopped trying to listen. They were talking about Mom and Dad. My eyes welled up with tears, and I tried to blink them away. I didn’t want the women to see me cry.

I also didn’t want to think about Mom and Dad like that.

After a few more whispers, the woman smoothed her gray hair back, even though there wasn’t a strand out of place in her severe bun. She stood and walked over to me before crouching to my level, her expression softening a little. ‘Hello, Layla,’ she said kindly. ‘My name is Mrs. Anderson. We’re here to help you, okay?’

I nodded, my voice caught in my throat.

‘Let’s get you settled in.’ Mrs. Anderson held out a hand for me, and I instinctively grabbed it. It was cold and boney, nothing like my mom’s hand. None of the strangers I’d been passed to since the police found me in our house had felt like Mom, though.

Mrs. Anderson didn’t waste any time, leading me out of the office and down another hallway.

As I followed her, I wiped away a tear that had escaped, almost dropping my bear in the process.

The hallway we walked down was lonely feeling, each step echoing like a heartbeat in the stillness. Mrs. Anderson’s footsteps were steady beside me, only a slightly reassuring presence as I ventured further into the unknown. The walls were lined with old photographs of children who had lived here before, their smiles frozen in time. I wondered where they were now.

Had they ever been happy?

We arrived at a door that Mrs. Anderson pushed open with a gentle creak. The room inside was small and simple, and cold. There were two beds with neatly made quilts, a desk with a chair, and a shelf with a few books. Dim light filtered through the curtains, casting a gray tinged glow over everything.

‘This will be your room, Layla,’ Mrs. Anderson said, her voice kind. ‘You’ll be sharing it with Michelle. I’m sure she’ll be by soon and you guys can get to know each other. Feel free to do whatever you want to make it your own.’

Staring around, it didn’t seem like Michelle had done anything to make it her own. My stomach trembled with even more nerves.

I looked around, feeling…grief. It wasn’t my old room back at home, filled with familiar posters and the lingering scent of Mom’s cooking. I knew I should be grateful to be here, since no one else had wanted me, but everything was wrong. The walls weren’t painted a soft shade of lavender, pictures of our little family’s adventures all over. The bed wasn’t overflowing with stuffed animals. And there weren’t flowers on the nightstand, like the ones Dad had brought me every week along with the ones he got Mom.

‘Thank you,’ I whispered, a wobble in my words.

‘You’re welcome, dear,’ Mrs. Anderson replied with a soft smile, as she ignored the pain in my voice. ‘If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll send someone to give you a tour in a little while. Dinner will be at six in the main room.’

I nodded, still struggling to find my words. She left me alone in the room, closing the door behind her. As I sat on the edge of the bed, my teddy bear clutched to my chest, a sense of loneliness washed over me. The tears I had held back earlier now streamed uncontrollably down my cheeks.

The more minutes that ticked by, the more my emotions swirled like a tempest, a violent storm I couldn’t control. The pain of loss, the raw loneliness, it all crashed over me like a relentless wave, tearing through the fragile dam of my composure. I felt like I was drowning in an ocean of tears, each sob an echo of the ache buried deep within me. Panic clawed at my chest, a vicious beast threatening to break free.

The room, this alien space, seemed to constrict around me, a straightjacket of unfamiliarity that I couldn’t escape. My heart raced, breaths came in shallow gasps. I was teetering on the edge of an abyss. The world spun, a dizzying dance that left me disoriented and struggling to find my footing.

Enough. I couldn’t stay here. With a desperate gasp, I lurched off the bed, my vision a blur of saltwater, my teddy bear falling from my hands. I sprinted down the corridor, a mad dash to outrun the encroaching panic. I burst from the building and into the field behind the orphanage, the cool breeze on my face a sharp contrast to the turmoil inside.

I collapsed onto the grass, panic tightening its grip. It was as if the world had shattered, and I was lost in the debris. Then, from out of the chaos, a voice sliced through.

‘Hey, hey, it’s okay. Just focus on your breath. I’m right here.’

I blinked through tear-soaked lashes and saw a boy standing there, concern shining from his eyes. He looked at me as though he really saw me. There was no pity like there had been in the eyes of the officers…of everyone. His deep green gaze was absent of the resignation that Ms. Thompson and Mrs. Anderson directed my way. No, all I saw in the depths of his stare was that he cared. His presence was like a lifeline in the storm, grounding me in the midst of my panic. His eyes were gentle, his voice soothing as he spoke.

‘Deep breath, angel, and then exhale slowly. You’re doing great.’

The panic began to ebb away, replaced by a sense of calm that I hadn’t thought possible.

For a minute, the frenzy was gone. The world around me disappeared until nothing but silence was left.

As the panic receded, I wiped away the remnants of my tears and peered up at him, a mix of gratitude and curiosity in my gaze.

The boy looked a little older than me, his hair a storm of wild black waves that seemed to have a mind of its own. His vibrant green eyes sparkled with mischief, and something about them made my heart race.

There was a smudge of dirt on his cheek and his grin was wide, like he knew a million secrets and couldn’t wait to share all of them. His lips curved up with a natural feeling of confidence that I’d never seen in someone.

He stood there like he owned the world, his posture relaxed and ready for anything.

‘Thank you,’ I finally managed to rasp out when I realized I was just staring at him.

His smile grew broader, like there was sunshine inside him he couldn’t contain. ‘It’s no biggie.” His gaze darted over my face and I wiped at the tears still dripping down my cheeks. “I’m Ari, by the way.’

My voice wavered as I replied, ‘Layla.’

“Layla,” he repeated, holding out his hand to help me off the ground.

I stared at it for a long minute, not understanding why taking it seemed like such a big decision.

When I finally reached out and grabbed it, my fate was sealed.

I just didn’t know it yet.


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