Red sneakers kicked up dust along the pathway entering Wild Horse Park, the sound oddly soothing to a frustrated college coed. It was as if the ground was welcoming Bella back to her familiar jogging trail. She strayed to the edge, lightly stepping across the grass, skirting the edge of the blue waters of the central pond. In the distance, she could hear the sounds of birds chirping, happy at the approaching long summer days.
Bella, on the other hand, dreaded the thought of her upcoming vacation. While her classmates gushed about their summer plans, she recognized the one thing in all their stories that was missing from her own – family. Her friends talked about camping trips, seaside escapades, patriotic parades, and amusement park adventures and with sisters and brothers, parents, aunts, and uncles, and cousins. Bella would be spending, yet another summer, with her aging grandparents in Simspania. Sure, they were family, but it was more like punishment than pleasure. Last summer, Bella had spent the entire time mucking the horse stables and tending to the fields, hardly fun and games, and her parents didn’t come to visit her once. Michael, her little brother, did make the trek up to Neighorly City last Simgust to help her move into her dorms again, but he didn’t even stay the night. This year, Mortimer would be in Simpan for business, and even Malcolm was headed to Osimceana instead of the Sim Union, both on the other side of the world from her summer home.
As Bella rounded the park for the third time, she exhaled heavily. She much preferred the outdoors to the treadmills in the fieldhouse. She didn’t particularly appreciate gym nuts staring at her body while she pounded the nylon-polyester, as if her body was a exhibit at the zoo. Last time she worked out in public, she had three guys drooling over her as they lifted weights behind her, no doubt staring at her booty, and a freshman girl struggling desperately to keep up with her pace at her side, constantly peppering her with unwanted questions about where she went to get her tan and who her hair stylist was. The park was more of a safe haven for Bella, on the edge of town, away from curious eyes and flapping lips.
Nonetheless, today she felt uneasy, as if someone was watching her. She glanced about, unable to find the source of her discomfort. A pigeon fluttered from a tree, and she whipped her gaze upward, faintly seeing the outlines of a white tee shirt among the leaves in the high branches. Perhaps a bird watcher, but more likely a peeping Tom. Bella grumbled beneath her breath, deciding this loop would be her last.
Ever since she had been spotted in Starlight Shores attending a movie premier with Mortimer last Christmas, she had been hounded by paparazzi. Everyone wanted to know why one of the most successful and wealthy businessmen from the West Coast was seen with a college girl from the countryside town of Pleasantview. The general public suspected a romance blossoming between Mr. Goth and Ms. Bachelor, but thankfully, after three months, the intensity of the gossip magazines and news columns died down. Even so, that didn’t seem to stop the occasional over-eager reporter looking to snap a photograph of Bella.
The man, and source of her unease, jumped to the ground from his hiding spot in the upper tree branches, however, Bella was too distracted by the man waiting for her on the park bench at the end of the pathway.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, slowing to a stop.
It was broad daylight in a public park and Malcolm Landgrabb IV was grinning up at her casually as if it didn’t matter if they were seen together.
“What? I can’t come watch you run?” he asked. “It is a free country…” he tucked his arms behind his head and intertwined his fingers with a smug smile. “…I could be contemplating the fish in the pond here or perhaps I was thinking about taking up bird watching. I hear the robins over here are a particularly interesting species.”
“Sure,” Bella rolled her eyes, plopping down on the bench. “And you just so happen to time it perfectly to see me?”
“Or I could just need a reprieve on a hot Simmay day and this tree-shaded bench is perfect for my needs,” he smiled, dropping one of his hands down and touching the edge of her fingers. “Hello Bella…” he said softly.
“Hello Malcolm,” she shivered delightedly at his touch.
“I’ve missed you,” he said in a low voice.
“I saw you this morning in our joint stress, coping, and wellness class,” she replied. “You missed me after oh what?” she glanced at her watch… Mortimer’s…and suddenly aware of its ownership, she covered her wrist. “…four hours?”
“Yes,” he breathed, his excited tone stirring her blood.
She was grateful he made the trek, as finals were next week, and after that, she wouldn’t see him for the whole summer. She wanted as much time with Malcolm as possible, and yet she was still timid about meeting him in public.
“What does Brittany say about your rendezvous with another woman?” Bella dared to ask.
“What Brittany doesn’t know doesn’t hurt her,” he shrugged. “Plus we could simply say we are meeting to discuss a class project.”
“What class project?” she inquired. “As I recall, you weren’t even supposed to be in my class.”
“What can I say, Bella Bachelor?” Malcolm replied, his nickel blue eyes twinkling. “I am drawn to you. I had to build in a perfectly acceptable excuse to see you so I signed up for your course. It works as an elective for me.”
“It’s my elective too, you know,” Bella said, flattered that he had found a way to fit an unnecessary course into this past semester and impressed that the class managed to count toward his major.
“Well, I elected to see you, and it’s perfectly explainable to Brittany if she asks why we’re studying together,” he continued, running a hand through his neatly groomed blonde locks.
Bella giggled. “Are you actually studying stress management techniques or are you studying something else?”
“What do you think?” he smirked, leaning close until she could feel his soft breath on her face.