Authors: M. Lynne Cunning
M. Lynne Cunning
Copyright © 2015 by M. Lynne Cunning. All rights reserved.
First Print Edition: March 2015
Limitless Publishing, LLC
Kailua, HI 96734
Formatting: Limitless Publishing
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
Table of Contents
“It’s just dinner, Michael.”
“I said I can’t do it, Lauren,” he barked back, his brow furrowed in frustration as he turned away to concentrate on the magazine he was skimming through. After a few moments, he peered at her over the edge of the magazine.
“We’ll go out next week or something, okay?” he said.
Lauren glared at him from across the room. “You’ll be working the same number of hours next week, Mike, if not more. Besides, our friends are inviting us outtonight, not next week. We’ve declined the last two times everyone got together. Pretty soon, everyone will just stop calling to ask us out.”
Michael tossed the magazine down on the coffee table in front of him, leaning ahead to sit up straight and stare at her squarely. “Iwork, Lauren, and when I get home in the evenings, the last thing I want to do is dress up in uncomfortable clothes and go hang out with a few other couples who I don’t necessarily care to spend time with on a regular basis.”
She’d been drying a dish. Now she set it on the counter with a harsh clang, her eyes widening with disbelief and anger. “Michael, there was a time when Maryanne and Todd were people you considered good friends as well. Or did you forget that?”
He pushed himself out of the tattered armchair he used to spend so many evening hours in. He looked at Lauren, his arms at his sides, and she could tell he was trying to determine the simplest way to get out of this argument without having to give in and go out to dinner.
“You are more than welcome to go out with our friends tonight,” he stated, emphasizing the wordour. He walked quietly across the living room to the kitchen counter, where he leaned against it, his stance betraying his exhaustion. Lauren threw the tea towel into the sink and stomped across the room, refusing to meet his gaze.
“You know what? Don’t worry about it. I’ll call Nadine and let her know that, once again, we’ll be staying home. I wonder what excuse I can use this time. Sickness? Maybe Piper has to go to the vet. Or maybe, just maybe, we can tell her the truth, that you have decided no one is worthy of your time anymore? That you’d rather only go out with your brother on the weekends, not with your old friendsoryour wife?” Lauren grabbed the cordless phone from the base on the counter and hastily strode into the bedroom, slamming the door.
She could hear Michael approach the bedroom door warily and could almost visualize the look on his face as he held his clenched fist up to the door, preparing to knock, and then thought better of it. His footsteps retreated back into the living room, and Lauren knew very well he’d gone back to sitting in his chair, reclined with his magazine, content in his confidence that she would get over her frustration and pretend like nothing had happened. She sighed loudly, trying to calm herself down. She dialed Nadine’s number and felt a rush of relief when her husband, Aaron, answered. Lauren broke the bad news that they wouldn’t be going out tonight, but knew Aaron was not one to press for details. He hung up, promising to pass on the news to Nadine, and said he hoped to see them soon.
She sprawled herself across the neatly made bed, her chestnut hair strewn over the pillows around her, the phone still gripped tightly in her hand. After a few minutes, knowing nothing was going to resolve itself by hiding and staring bleakly at the ceiling tiles, Lauren cautiously opened the bedroom door, the soft click of the handle being the only sound to announce her reappearance, and made her way down the short hallway to return the telephone to its base. Michael’s gaze didn’t leave the page he was intently pretending to read.
“I don’t want to fight with you,” she said.
He looked up. He’d cracked open a Budweiser and had it sitting beside the coaster on the coffee table. She cringed, wondered idly if he had placed it there on purpose, but then quickly decided to pick her battles and let it go this time.
“I don’t want to fight with you either, Lauren,” he said. “Mostly because you always win.”
She saw the flicker of amusement cross his face, her irritation subsiding slightly. He tossed the magazine beside his beer and got up, walking over and wrapping his arms around her shoulders, pulling her to his chest. He kissed the top of her head. The tension eased in her posture and she was returning his embrace before she even realized it.
“We’ll go out next week, okay? If Maryanne and Todd or Nadine and Aaron can’t come, then we’ll just go out alone.” He pulled back and lifted Lauren’s chin to meet his gaze. “Just the two of us. I promise.” He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. Suddenly, she realized she was hoping that neither Maryanne nor Nadine could make it next week.
The corner of her mouth twitched in humor. “We haven’t gone out just the two of us in a long time, Mike. You might not remember how to go on a date with me.”
Michael’s eyes glinted as he stared at her, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “It has been a while, but if my memory serves me correctly, I should probably take you out to that little restaurant on Elita West. Gloriana’s, isn’t it?”
Lauren watched, amused, as he furrowed his eyebrows and pretended to be thinking really hard to remember the intricate details trapped deep within his long buried memories. The truth was, it was the only nice sit-down restaurant in close proximity of their rural home.
“Ah, yes, Gloriana’s,” he continued. “You’ll order a glass of cabernet sauvignon, and I’ll order one of those beers from some microbrewery I’ve never heard of. We will talk, laugh, and forget that we ever had this little argument. And,” he paused to stare at her knowingly, kissing her again, “If I’m really lucky and on my best behavior, you will have a second glass of wine, not care that I’ve been a jerk over the past few weeks, let go of your inhibitions, and I can bring you home, where you will succumb to my charm and charisma, and I will have you out of that little black dress you love to wear by the time we get the front door closed.”
Lauren’s eyes widened as she bit back laughter. “Is that so? Well, I’m so glad you’ve thought this whole thing through.” She could feel Michael’s hands pressing into her back as he pulled her against him, obviously aware he was winning her over. She made a mental note to try to rehearse her fighting arguments next time before letting him get his hands on her.
He kissed her again, smiling unabashedly now. “Are you kidding? I’ve played the scene over in my mind at least three times since I thought of it.” He laughed, running his hands along her back. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed his touch until this moment.
“It sounds like a wonderful evening, Michael,” Lauren said, her voice lowered. “Just remember, you promised. No backing out of it now.” She paused, arching an eyebrow. “How else is that little black dress going to make it to the floor without Gloriana’s, cabernet sauvignon, and your charm and charisma?”
In one quick moment, Michael lifted her up, and she wrapped her legs around his hips and her arms around his neck to hold herself there. With one hand holding her firmly, he went to the coffee table and plucked his opened beer from the surface. Then, he made his way to the refrigerator, setting his beer on the counter, removed a half full bottle of pinot noir from the bottom shelf of the door, and handed it to her, shutting the refrigerator door with his foot. She took the bottle, looking at him with a quizzical yet delighted expression on her face.
“I know this isn’t Gloriana’s, and that’s not the wine you’d order there,” he motioned toward the bottle in her hand, “but I figure we should skip the dinner and give this whole date night thing a trial run.”
Lauren laughed, throwing her head back in amusement. “You’re not heading to the ranch to work late again?”
Michael’s eyes were intense. “I have a better idea.” The mischievous glint in his eyes reappeared.
“I don’t even get a wine glass?” Lauren quipped, holding up the bottle. He reached over and twisted the cap off the bottle, tossing it on the counter.
“I told you, this isn’t Gloriana’s.”
Michael leaned her against the fridge and kissed her hungrily, smiling against her lips. He pulled his face away to look into her hazel eyes, grinning like the Cheshire cat.
“Good thing this isn’t Gloriana’s,” Lauren said breathlessly, her pulse quickening as she turned her head to the side to take a sip from the wine bottle.
Michael grabbed his beer from the counter and, stopping off momentarily to lock the front door and turn off the lights, carried her toward the bedroom.
Lauren sat at her desk staring aimlessly at the faint shadows cast in lengthy shapes across the walls of her dimly lit office. Perhaps it wasn’t exactly an office, more of an extra room in their two-bedroom house. It had been haphazardly converted into a makeshift place where she could sit in front of the computer and ruminate about the lack of words being typed across the glowing screen.
She was unable to understand why this story she was hell-bent on writing was eluding her so greatly. The idea was there. The main points in the plot were even planned out in intricate detail in the depths of her mind. However, somehow, and she wasn’t sure of exactly how, but somehow the story was stuck. She couldn’t seem to break through the dense fog that prevented her from pressing her fingers madly against the keyboard and taking it to the next level. Many people called it writer’s block. Lauren called it absolute hell. It wasn’t fair to have a story take up so much space in her mind when it completely refused to be told.
This is going to make me crazy.
The problem was simple. The story, a mainstream romance that allowed her main character named Sarah to find and fall in love with her one true love after many trials and tribulations, was exactly what any reader would expect when it came to reading a romance novel. All the key aspects were there: the love triangle, the lust, the love, the conflict. Every ingredient was available to concoct the perfect heart-wrenching romance novel that any reader and lover of the genre would swoon over. But the key element was missing. And what was that?
The man.There is always a male character readers seem to dislike from the beginning but reluctantly want to know more, even though theyshouldn’twant to know more. The brooding, dark, ruggedly handsome man who seems to be capable of saying only a few words, and those few words are exactly what make female readers melt from the inside out.
He exudes heat in his voice, his tone, his manner, and his touch. No matter how certain a woman is that she shouldn’t get involved with someone like that, she realizes all too late that she’s already involved.
The reader has wanted that man since the moment he showed up on the page. He’s what keeps the pages turning. He’s what a romantic novel requires in order to be, well, a story of romance.
Heis what Lauren couldn’t quite seem to extract from her brain. No matter how hard she tried, how much she struggled to focus on what he might look like, how he might act, who he might be, she just could not seem to get him to reveal his identity. She couldn’t get him to reveal anything about himself. He wasn’t just lost, he was completely shut out from her mind. She had no access to this character, and it drove her insane. Day after day, evening after evening, Lauren sat in that chair and stared at that computer monitor without typing so much as another sentence.
She lowered her head into her hands and shook her head sadly from side to side. It had been almost three weeks since she’d been able to hit the keyboard keys and make that cursor move steadily across the screen. Three weeks of nothing. She’d never had this kind of trouble with a work in progress before. Heck, the first novel she’d written had taken a total of eight months to write, edit, rewrite a few sections, and then send off to a few small publishing houses, only to have the novel picked up by one of them within five weeks.
The book had been moderately successful. She had a few signings under belt and some great reviews. She wanted nothing more than to feel almost invincible again, as the words came easily and flowed onto the screen without even consciously typing them.
That first story was aching to be told. Lauren had thought the same about the second novel, too, at least until the river ran dry three weeks ago. A story that had seemed so destined to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps had now come to a crashing halt.
And, if she paired that sad truth with the frustrating state of her and Michael’s marriage, Lauren just didn’t know how much more she could handle. It was almost impossible to imagine it all going on this way for much longer.
Last night was a prime example of how things were going, if only a milder example. They’d argued, yes, but it ended the same way their more heated arguments always did. In bed. Michael knew that promises of things getting better and a little wining and dining could always smooth things over with her.
The part she didn’t understand was why it always took an argument or a full-out yelling match for him to make the effort to be that man, the one who said sweet things and spent time with her. The sexy smiles and late night rendezvous as they drank wine from the bottle didn’t hurt either. The Michael she’d married only four years earlier had done things like that. It wasn’t something she could say he did often, but at least then it hadn’t taken a heated argument to coax a little affection from him.
She knew he worked hard, and the hours he worked were long, but it seemed like each day the hours he spent at work were stretching further and further into the evening. She shouldn’t complain because, in theory, the solitude allowed her more time and freedom to spend time writing. That said, there were some nights where he didn’t get home until well after Lauren had climbed into bed and turned off the lights. She was aware that running the ranch with Ellis, his brother, was difficult, perhaps even more difficult than the two brothers had expected it to be after their father passed away two years ago. She understood the importance of taking over the family business and that the value of the ranch wasn’t just sentimental. The property and business were Michael and Ellis’s inheritance, and to own a business of that magnitude outright, well, Lauren understood the brothers’ desire to follow in their father’s footsteps and make use of his final gift to them.
She didn’t want to be upset that Michael was always gone. She didn’t want to portray the picture of neediness when she asked him on countless occasions when he thought he would be home. She didn’t want to despise the way things had turned out for them after taking over the ranch here in Texas. She didn’t want to feel like things were only going to get worse as time went on, and she sure didn’t want to feel like she wasn’t truly living by being stuck in a world that resembled such unhappiness.
Unfortunately, she did.
Lauren woke up groggy, streaks of sunlight breaking through the unevenly drawn curtains. A groan escaped her throat as she rolled over and peered through a half opened eye at the glowing red numbers on the alarm clock. Seven in the morning. It was the weekend. Why in the bloody hell was she awake at such an ungodly hour on a day she was able to sleep in? Then she heard the noises from beyond the bedroom door. She listened closely and realized Michael was home and shuffling about in the kitchen. Lauren instantly hoped he was in the process of making coffee, but then another thought crossed her mind. Had he come home last night, or just now, this morning?
Late last night, she had laid in bed in the darkness and stared out at the full white moon that hovered like a glowing beacon in the clear blackened sky. The moon had been the only company she had while she tried to call Michael’s cell phone, repeatedly getting his voice mail. She knew he sometimes turned his phone off at the ranch or left it in the office, so it wouldn’t accidentally be broken or wasn’t constantly interrupting him, but it was late. Really late. Something must have gone wrong during his and Ellis’s work day to hold them up for that long.
Lauren dragged her tired body off the bed and put on her slippers. Rubbing her eyes as she went, she opened the bedroom door and let the soft light of daylight cascade into the darkened room.
“Michael?” she called, as she headed down the small hallway toward the kitchen. The smell of eggs and bacon wafted toward her and Lauren couldn’t help but sigh at the welcoming scent.
“Hey, you’re awake.”
Lauren rounded the corner into the kitchen to see Michael pulling a second plate from the cupboard. Steam rose from the breakfast food as he evenly dished it out onto the plates and offered one to her. “Coffee’s ready, too.”
Lauren glanced longingly toward the percolating coffee pot and saw a mug already sitting out for her. Michael knew, as much as she didn’t like to admit it, she needed a coffee in the morning. The need was one she could not explain enough. She wasn’t one of those people who drank coffee all day, every day, but first thing in the morning, there was nothing she needed more than a big mug of steaming hot black coffee.
“Seems you’ve thought of everything. Thank you.” She set her plate down to pour a cup of coffee. When she was done, she turned to see Michael already seated at the dining room table, coffee mug in hand, staring into the living room at the television set. The morning news. It was part of their routine. Get up, get coffee, and eat food while getting caught up on the good and bad going on around the world. Lauren looked forward to this part of their daily life together, especially when Michael didn’t seem in a rush to get out the door. This morning seemed to be one of those days they could enjoy each other’s company and idly banter about what they saw on the news together.
“Another school shooting, can you believe that?” Michael said between mouthfuls without tearing his eyes from the television screen.
Lauren turned to look at what he was referring to and saw the tragic scene. The cameraman was focusing on the area outside a high school that had been barricaded off with bright yellow caution tape. On either side of the tape, police, ambulance attendants, and civilians were scurrying about with terrified and saddened expressions on their faces. In an instant, their world had been torn to pieces forever, never to be the same again.
“It’s so sad, Michael. It almost makes me want to turn off the TV and never turn it back on.” She took a sip from the coffee. Michael had made it the way she liked it. She preferred dark roast coffee with a bit more added to the filter to make it that much stronger. Michael preferred light roast, milder. When he stole a glance in her direction after her first sip, he offered her a lopsided smirk that let her know he knew exactly what she was thinking.
“You’re always so dramatic, Lauren.” He said it jovially, even though there was a ring of truth in his words. She just waved her free hand dismissively while raising the mug to her lips again.
A silence fell between them and, just like the news broadcast that quickly turned to a report on a fraud scam taking the elderly population by storm in Dallas, their conversation changed too when Michael reached for the remote control on the table and flicked off the television. He turned in his chair to set his gaze on her.
“Something’s on your mind.”
Lauren looked down at her coffee cup for a moment, hesitant to proceed. She didn’t want to make it sound worse than it was, but she also wanted him to understand where she was coming from.
“There is, actually,” she began. “But I don’t want you to think I’m saying this for reasons that aren’t actually my true reasons for wanting to do what I want to do.”
A small chuckle escaped Michael’s lips as he set his coffee mug down, obviously amused. “Lauren, you’d better explain to me what it is you’re trying to say because, frankly, your cryptic warning makes very little sense to me. Just say it, will you?” He gave her an encouraging glance before taking another bite of his food and she scoffed at her own nervousness.
He was her husband, so why in the hell was she so nervous? Because he could take her idea completely the wrong way and they could end up in a catastrophic argument again, that’s why. Lauren didn’t like conflict, especially with Michael. They’d been so good together for four years, five and a half if she counted the time they had spent dating before getting married, so the tension between them now was wearing on her nerves and her heart.
“Okay, here’s the thing.” She paused and looked at him, but his expression was blank as he leaned back in his chair and prepared to listen to what she had to say. “I have been doing a little research online about some courses that are being offered in creative writing and the writing of fiction. I’m really struggling with this next novel, Michael. I think if I was able to throw myself into a different atmosphere, a different routine, and different projects, maybe I could knock down the walls around the writer’s block that seems to be plaguing me. I want to get back to being able to write and feel good about it while I’m doing it. I not only want to take a course, I think Ineedto.”
Michael didn’t answer right away, making her think that perhaps he was thinking exactly what she didn’t want him to think, that she was only doing this to get away from him. She fought the urge to blurt out that it wasn’t because of him, but just in case thatwasn’twhat he was thinking, she stayed silent and let him form his own response.
“How long is the course?”
Questions were a good sign. “Four months, that’s all.”
“You said it would put you in a different atmosphere. Where do you need to go for this course?”
Her expression was undoubtedly a dead giveaway that this was the part she’d been hesitant to divulge. “New York.” She watched as he turned to stare out the window, the silence becoming awkward for her. Fear of an impending argument engulfed her.
“Aren’t there any closer courses you could take, Lauren? I mean, do you really need to travel over fifteen hundred miles just to take a course in writing? Hell, you’ve already published a book.” He exhaled heavily and turned back to face her.
“I could, Mike, I know that, but the course in New York at Columbia University is really recommended amongst people who’ve attended it as well as folks in the publishing industry, and the curriculum looks fantastic. Besides, I really, really think that getting away from my everyday routine and having a change of scenery might help me get a better handle on my writing.” She paused and stared into Michael’s eyes, holding his gaze. “It might help us a bit, too.”
Michael didn’t blink as he stared back at her. “Do we need help?”
She looked down at her coffee mug and untouched food, anything to take her eyes off his sad expression, which made it seem as if she’d just told him someone had died. “Maybe,” was all she could manage. Michael stood up and came around to her side of the table, silently holding out his hand to her. She placed her hand in his and he gently pulled her to her feet, and then into him, the heat from his chest radiating through to Lauren’s cheek as she rested her head against him.
“If it will help you, help us even, then go.” His words sounded pained as he stroked his hand through her hair. Or was he actually upset over this? Perhaps she justwantedhim to be. Lauren laced her fingers together after sliding her hands around his hips, trying to prevent tears from welling in her eyes.
“It’s only for four months, Mike.”
“I know. You sure you’ll be okay in a big city like that, though?”
Lauren chuckled against his chest. The thought had already crossed her mind, too. “I’m telling you, Michael, four months of city lights and bumper to bumper traffic and I’ll be begging to come back to our little rural life here.”
“That’s what I’m banking on.”
She lifted her head to look up at him. His eyes were soft and his expression warm. They would be okay, she knew it. He looked sincere, even hopeful. His tender kiss against her lips confirmed it.
Autumn crept into Texas suddenly and it was surprisingly chilly in the evenings. Lauren had had to get things in order relatively quickly in preparation for her trip across the country to attend the prestigious writing course. She still couldn’t believe she was going. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was Michael’s helpfulness to get her what she needed.
Once the decision to attend the course had been made, there were very few things he was hesitant to help with. And when it came down to her accommodations at the school for the next four months, it was actually his idea to use some of the money they’d been saving in order to build another barn at the ranch to pay the pricier fee and allow Lauren to live in a dormitory room all to herself. The idea of not having a roommate and being able to spread her books out as far as she’d like and work on her stories as long as she desired was extremely appealing.
She packed up only what she felt she needed and was able to reduce her belongings to a large two-wheeled luggage case and a big overnight bag. That made the flight to New York a bit easier, but she still didn’t like handing over her luggage to be packed into the cargo area of the plane. While she was thankful to be able to take the overnight bag as a carry-on, the thought of what she would do if her wheeled luggage got lost almost drove her crazy. She let Michael know it, too, via cell phone at the airport.
“If they lose it…”
On the other end, Michael just laughed. “I thinkyou’relosing it, Lauren. Just calm down, it’ll be fine. Drama, drama, drama.” The sound of his chuckle in her ear helped to ease her tension a bit.
“You know I hate airplanes,” Lauren retorted, as if that explained everything.
“I know. I wish I could go with you, but I can’t. I have the—”
“I know, I know. The ranch,” Lauren finished for him. It was always the ranch. An audible sigh of defeat was heard through the receiver.
“Sorry,” she added, feeling childish for having made the snippy comment. “That was uncalled for. I guess I’m just stressed. Having you with me helps, that’s all. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I know how you feel about it, Lauren.”
“I know how I feel aboutyou, too.”
“I feel the same way, babe.”
Just as she started to answer, a beep sounded in her ear and Lauren pulled the phone away to look at the screen.
“Dang it, I guess I should go. Nadine is on the other line.”
“You haven’t told her yet, have you? When she called the other night, she made no reference to your move.” He didn’t sound mad, just unsure as to why Lauren wouldn’t have mentioned it. After all, Nadine was the closest thing Lauren had to a best friend.
“I couldn’t bring myself to tell her,” was the best explanation she could come up with. She’d had numerous chances, but unlike Michael, Nadine was intuitive; she could and would pick up on the underlying reasons for such a trip. She was well aware of the tension and constant arguing that had been taking place over the last few months. She would undoubtedly have a few things to say once she realized Lauren was putting physical distance between her and Michael on top of the already present emotional distance.
“Well,” he said with a hint of amusement, “It looks like you won’t have a choice but to tell her in about fifteen seconds. I love you, Lauren. Call me later.”
“Love you, too.”
She pressed a button on her phone to switch to the incoming call. “Nadine?”
“Call me crazy, but why do I get the sneaking suspicion that you’ve been dodging my calls, darlin’?”
Lauren squeezed her eyes shut. Nadine called everyonedarling, but the sarcasm that accompanied the way she said it today announced the hurt she was feeling. Lauren had been avoiding her calls, unsure of what she would say. The only saving grace right now was that, no matter how Nadine reacted to the news of her departure, she wouldn’t be showing up on Lauren’s doorstep in a half hour to try to analyze the situation further or talk her out of going altogether.
“Hey, Nadine. Look, there’s something I have got to tell you, okay? I’m sorry I didn’t return your calls but I didn’t—”
“Just spit it out, darling, will you?”
Lauren let out a slow breath to calm herself. She was thankful the elderly man in the seat beside her was sleeping. She didn’t need an audience to see how worked up she was getting over having to tell her friend something that could very easily be deemed trivial if explained the right way.
“I’m about to get on a plane, Nadine. To New York. I enrolled in a creative writing course at Columbia for four months.” The words came out so fast, Lauren wasn’t sure Nadine would understand her. A long silence made her wonder if she’d hung up.
“So, is thisreallyabout furthering your writing career or is it more about you and Michael? I’m not blind, Lauren.”
Just like that. She didn’t even try to cover up the truth this time.
“I think it’s a little bit of both all wrapped up in a nice neat package on its way to New York.”
“And why exactly did you feel like you couldn’t just tell me that for the last week? I have a good notion to pretend I’m mad and rip a strip off you just because I’d be entitled to, but don’t fret, darlin’, I won’t.”
Lauren breathed a sigh of relief and leaned her head back in her seat. “I appreciate that, Nadine.”
“So, are you and Michael okay? I mean, is he okay with you leaving for a while?” Bewilderment could be heard in her tone. There were questions she obviously wanted to ask outright, but she was tactful enough to know that perhaps now wasn’t the right time.
“We’re going to be okay. I think we both need this.”
“I hope you’re right, darlin’.”
Me too, Lauren thought anxiously,me too.
Hours later, Lauren was comfortably settled in her chair, staring at her laptop screen, surrounded by generic bedroom furniture that wasn’t hers and a dim light that shone from the desk lamp positioned beside the computer.
The tiny room wasn’t much, to say the least. A small twin-size bed was pushed against the wall, made only with the plain purple sheet set and an old striped blanket she had brought with her from home. There was a three-drawer dresser against the other wall, but she had only brought enough clothes with her to fill the first two drawers. A jacket and a few pairs of jeans hung by themselves in the closet by the door that led out into the hallway of the dormitory. Thankfully, her room boasted a wide window that allowed an impressive view of the city from where she sat on the third story of the building.
It was dark now, and the cluster of lights shone brightly in front of her as she stared past the computer screen out the window. The view was so markedly differently from what she was used to back in Texas that she wasn’t sure if she would ever get used to seeing it or ever want to shut the blinds suspended from the top sill of the window.
As the city lights blinked and flashed in front of her eyes, she reached for her cell phone and hit the speed dial for their home number. It was as if her desire to hear Michael’s voice, a sound that could resonate through her and connect her to the less urban life she was so far away from, was a physical need rather than just a want. The phone rang three times, the ringing loud in her ear as she waited anxiously, but the call went directly to voice mail and Lauren decided not to leave a message. She would call again in a bit, she told herself, as she swallowed the lump in her throat that threatened to overwhelm her.
She pushed the emotion into the back of her mind and attempted to focus once again on the computer screen in front of her.
This was it, she’d done it. There was a cascade of city lights in front of her, a place full of new faces and scenery. The atmosphere of a college campus was so unlike the surroundings she had become accustomed to in their tiny rural Texas town. The dormitory hallways were eerily quiet, since most of the students wouldn’t be moving into the dorm rooms until tomorrow. But the differences between what Lauren saw now and where she had been could not be ignored.
She had made the change she wanted in order to further her writing career. It had been a bonus that Michael had been so generous and forthcoming. This might have been the best decision Lauren had ever made for herself and her dream to be a writer. She should have been ecstatic and overcome with excitement at the unknown, and the next four months that were geared solely around creative writing techniques and critique.
But she wasn’t.
The computer screen remained just as it had been at home in Texas, the cursor blinking steadily in the same position on the page with Lauren glaring at it with the same detest. With each moment that ticked by, she second-guessed her decision to make such a drastic move and her capabilities as a writer. Perhaps she had been crazy to think she could fix her writer’s block by moving halfway across the country. Perhaps it had been a ploy, a cover-up her mind had allowed her to believe so she could take some time away from Michael and their marital issues. Wasthatwhat this was all about? It couldn’t be. Lauren had never run from her problems before. She wouldn’t do that to Michael. She loved him, of that she was sure. She reached for her cell again and hit redial on the keypad. After two rings, he answered.
“Michael, hey. I tried to call earlier. Just checking in.” She closed her eyes, trying to imagine him sitting before her and not fifteen hundred miles away, wearing the faded jeans and plaid shirt he always wore to the ranch, his short sandy hair matted to his forehead from being tucked under his hat all day. She hated the thought of him being alone.
“Oh, sorry. I just got in from work. Ellis stayed to finish up a few things.”
Lauren did the math in her head. The time that glowed back at her from the computer monitor was just before eight, which meant that it wasn’t quite seven in Texas yet.
“You’re home earlier than you have been lately.” Lauren hadn’t meant to say it out loud, but the thought had registered so quickly that she couldn’t hold it back. Since he’d taken over the ranch with Ellis, she could count on one hand how many times Michael had come home before nine or ten at night.
“Well, I figure if I start getting Ellis used to me leaving the ranch a bit earlier each night, then maybe things will be more routine once you get back.”
Lauren’s heart beat harder in her chest. Michael was trying, really trying, to make things better for them in the long run. The amount of time he spent away from their home and from her had been one of their biggest issues lately, and fixing that problem would go a long way in making them stronger in the end.
“That sounds so good, Mike.”
“I really have to go for now, though, okay?”
Lauren was caught off guard. “Oh, yeah, of course. I’ll talk to you later then, all right?”
“Sure. Love you, Lauren.”
She said she loved him, too, but he had already disconnected the call.
She set the phone down and sat in silence. The face-off between her imagination and the computer screen continued. Sadly, it seemed the computer screen was going to win this round. She admitted defeat and shut down the computer. Then, after clicking the switch to turn the desk lamp off, Lauren sat in the silence and stared out at the ocean of city lights that winked back at her, wondering what her husband was doing right now and if he missed her the way she was missing him.
Early the next morning, one day before the creative writing course was to begin, Lauren opted to leave the dormitory early to avoid the hustle, bustle, and noise associated with other students moving in. She packed up her laptop and headed over to the campus cafe. While the cafe was about a ten minute walk from the dormitory, it was much closer to the building her classes were being held in.
She wondered if she would become an all-day coffee drinker by the end of her four month stint in New York. Didn’t city slickers drink overpriced coffees day in and day out in order to keep up with the fast-paced lives they’d created for themselves in this concrete jungle they called home?
Within a few minutes of entering the cafe, Lauren was able to confirm two things about life in New York. The first was that the distinctive aroma of coffee beans and hot chocolate was definitely a scent she wanted to be greeted with every day for the rest of her life. It was divine. The second was that she was right, coffee here was expensive. Perhaps customers were also paying for the privilege to inhale such a sweet, inviting scent while they sat at the small tables with their friends and their laptops. If that were the case, Lauren didn’t blame them for charging for it. She’d pay for the opportunity, too.
She found a table in the middle of the cafe and lowered her bags onto the floor. No one seemed to pay her any mind. It would take a bit of time to get used to the constant hum of chattering voices around her, the consistent movement of bodies on either side of her. There was never a moment where there was no sound or no movement, it seemed.
She unzipped her bag and pulled her laptop from it, setting it up on the small circular table in front of her. Unfortunately, there was no electrical outlet in close proximity so she would have to either move to a different table or leave the cafe if the laptop’s battery became low. She’d charged it before departing, so she had at least four hours of time to work.
She pressed the power button on the laptop and it whirred to life. Knowing the computer would need at least a few minutes to load up, Lauren pulled a ten dollar bill from her pocket and went to the order desk. She ordered a medium caramel macchiato, mainly because it was fun to say, and let her jaw hang open slightly when the barista only gave her back four dollars and some change. She made her way back to her little table and set her drink down beside the laptop. She vowed then and there not to become an all-day coffee drinker, if only for the fact that she’d be broke by the time she made it back to Texas.
As she took her first few sips of the drink, she sighed out loud. It was definitely worth the money. If she didn’t drink every last drop of it, she would never forgive herself. As she read through the first few chapters of her book, she was interrupted by the muffled ringing of her cell phone, still shoved deep in the folds of her bag. She didn’t even look at the call display, worried it would go to voice mail.
“Lauren, what are you up to, darling? Miss me yet?”
A wave of reprieve washed over her at the sound of Nadine’s voice. She wasn’t sour over not being told about her travel plans, after all. “You know I do. And I’m still doing the exact same thing I was doing in Texas. You know, trying to write a book from the perspective of a character that obviously does not want to be written.”
“Oh, Lauren, tell me you’re not still stuck in the same spot you were in a few weeks ago? Good lord, someone needs to show that Sarah who’s boss.”
Lauren chuckled. Nadine knew all about the trials of trying to write Sarah’s romance.
“Well, evidently, Sarah is the boss right now, Nadine. And she obviously does not want to be written about.” She tried to make light of it, but they both knew this story had been weighing heavily on Lauren’s mind. Many other writers would have walked away from the story with the hopes of picking it back up later, content to work on other pieces instead. Lauren had tried that. No matter what, it seemed like Sarah’s character was etched in her mind, showing up in other works purely to prove that she could. Lauren couldn’t leave her alone, mostly because Sarah wouldn’t allow it.
Nadine made a sound on the other end of the phone that sounded like a scoff. “Maybe it’s time to start looking at things from Sarah’s perspective instead of trying to get Sarah to tell you what her perspective is, darling. Take a glance at the world through her eyes, and maybe you’ll see the story in a clearer way. Know what I mean?”
“You want me to try tothinklike Sarah? I created the character, Nadine, that’s what I thought I was doing.”
Nadine’s sigh was audible. “I’m telling you to be her. Come on, what harm could it do? Steal her identity if you have to, but think about it. If you really want to know who this Sarah is, what kind of person she is, and who she would want as a star-crossed lover, you have to ask yourself, what would Sarah do?”
“It’s that simple, huh?”
“I think it is. Like I said, what harm could it do?”
“Maybe Sarah is more fun than I am,” Lauren teased, sipping her macchiato.
“Maybe Lauren’s mocking me right now.”
“Perhaps.” Both women laughed this time.
“Just think about it, okay?” Nadine asked. “I’m serious, it may be just what you need to get that story written so you can do your course and get your butt back here to Texas.”
“Point made. I have to come back anyway, I can’t afford the coffee shops here.”
Nadine laughed. “Darling, we have high-end coffee shops here in the south.”
“Not that I’ve been to.”
“That’s because you live in the sticks.”
The conversation ended with a few bouts of laughter and the promise of another phone call tomorrow night after Lauren’s first day of class. As she set her phone back down on the table beside the computer, she thought of Nadine’s proposal.
What would Sarah do? And, like she said, what harm could it do?
Nothing Lauren could have done would have prepared her for the number of students in her class the next morning. Surely this couldn’t be right? Colleges were known for their smaller class sizes and individual attention, weren’t they? There was no way that the number of people in the lecture theater she was standing in could possibly equal anything that resembled a small class size. She did a quick count of heads around the room. There had to be about sixty or seventy people there. Another thing she noticed was that most of the students in the room were significantly younger than she was. Great, in this room, being twenty-nine years old was over the hill. On top of that, most everyone seemed to know each other.
She chose a seat three rows from the back at the end of the row. A set of stairs trailed down the middle of the theater to the front of the class, and Lauren found it fascinating that a room could be set up to seat so many, yet no matter where you sat or how far back in the rows you were, you had a full view of the front podium. She wondered if the professor would need a microphone. The laughter and voices from the rows closer to the front seemed to carry all the way to the back of the room where she was without much effort.
It was precisely eight-thirty when a tall, lanky man with a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein shuffled into the room from the entrance on the left side. Lauren watched him as he looked about. It was obvious he was unprepared for the number of students sitting before him as well. He set the stack of papers and books down on the table near the raised platform he stood on and turned to face the crowd.
“Well, well, well. Looks like we’ve got ourselves a full house this semester!” His voice boomed across the openness of the theater. He most definitely was not going to need a microphone. It was evident how pleased he was with the turnout. His tone conveyed a sense of confidence that caused the last few students still talking or turned around in their seats to take notice of him. If Lauren had been unable to seen him, she would never have pictured a man who looked the way he did to have his voice.
“I’m Professor Erickson. However, that’s far too formal and I would welcome and appreciate it if you would call me by my first name, Anthony.” With this, he gave his students a warm smile and then launched into an introduction that wouldn’t soon be forgotten.
“With that out of the way, I can now tell you these next four months will not only be informative and curriculum based, but…oh hell, who am I kidding? I’m not one to follow the rules and I certainly am not going to keep track of attendance like you’re all a bunch of adolescents!” He proceeded to hold up a piece of paper, which must have been the attendance list, and then ripped it in half twice, tossing the resulting pieces into the air so that they scattered like giant confetti onto the floor. Laughter broke out among the students, making Anthony shrug, a small smile crossing his face.
“The curriculum states that I will teach you the following.” He held his hand up to count off each point. “Proper grammar, punctuation, and structure of different types of works.” Anthony wrinkled his forehead in disgust at such an idea, making him look like a Mr. Potato Head toy trying to imitate Einstein. Snickering could be heard throughout the rows of students.
“The way I see it is this,” Anthony continued. “If, by now, you do not know how to use punctuation, grammar, or what the basics are of creative writing, you probably wouldn’t have enrolled in a post secondary level creative writing course. Perhaps I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and I do suppose that time will tell how correct I am, but if you do not know those three things already, feel free to learn them on your own time.” He grew silent to let this sink in for a moment. From the back of the room, Lauren could see heads turning from side to side, searching their fellow students’ faces for confirmation that they were, in fact, in the right class.
“Now,” Anthony spoke more dramatically this time, “Let’s jump into this head first and see what we’re really made of, shall we?” He held his hands up as if preparing to announce the race of a lifetime and then winked at the entire class. “I need everyone sitting on the right side of the room to look to their left and shakes hands with the person sitting beside them or closest to them. Then, what I need you to do is introduce yourself because you and that person are about to be paired up together for the first assignment.”
Lauren turned to her left. She had the aisle seat, so she had to look to the other side of the room. There, a lone man sat, notebook in hand, and his eyes were fixed on Lauren as well. He smiled when he realized she was looking back at him, and she was struck by how his smile brightened the darkened features of his face. He was definitely older than the seventeen and eighteen-year-old students who giggled and laughed in the front rows, but Lauren wouldn’t peg him for being past thirty either. Nervousness set in and she turned away from him, focusing her attention once again on the front of the room where Anthony stood with his arms crossed, watching with amusement as the introductions occurred around him. All of a sudden, the man who’d smiled at her showed up beside Lauren and offered his hand. His other arm was cradling a jacket and notebook.
Lauren looked up and smiled uneasily at him. She had nothing against him, she was just uncertain about having to do something as personal and subjective as writing with a man she’d never met before. If their writing styles, opinions, and ideas didn’t mesh well, Lauren’s grade in the course could be in jeopardy, and she had yet to even start the lessons.
“Hello,” Lauren said but didn’t meet his eyes. The man seemed to find her shyness amusing as he side-stepped in front of her seat and sat down beside her, tossing his things into the chair on the other side of him.
“I’m Dean. Looks like we’re stuck together.”
Lauren was surprised when, once again, he held out his hand.If nothing, he’s adamant, she thought to herself. She didn’t want a partner, someone to have to answer to when it came to what and how she wrote. She didn’t want to have to suffer through her writer’s block and perhaps even fail at this course because of it, especially with an audience, and she surely didn’t want to be paired up with an attractive man. She had enough on her plate to keep her distracted without that.
What would Sarah do?She couldn’t help but realize Sarah wouldn’t be nearly as against such an arrangement. She was more of a roll-with-the-punches kind of girl, more comfortable in her own skin, more outgoing. She would be able to handle this situation like it was no big deal.
Lauren squeezed her eyes shut for a brief moment, then looked up and met Dean’s gaze. Portraying all the confidence she could muster, she slid her hand into his and shook it gently. “I’m Sarah, good to meet you.”
Not only did her words surprise her, but Lauren was taken aback by the voice that emanated from her own throat. It was almost unrecognizable, coated with authority and confidence that Lauren had never been able to convey before.
“Nice to meet you, too, Sarah. What do you think he’s got up his sleeve for a first assignment? This guy seems a little unconventional, to say the least,” Dean said as he leaned sideways to be closer to her.
Lauren was repeating Sarah’s name in her head over and over again, intent on channeling her character to take full control of the situation.
“Unconventional, yes, but perhaps he’s got a point. Since when does writing have to include specific rules and a certain order of things? As with most things, it’s better left to chance. Some of the most interesting things to happen to us are usually the most unexpected as well.” Lauren gave Dean a smug grin and then turned her attention back to Anthony, who had just found a piece of paper in his pile and was taking his place again in the center of the stage. Lauren wasn’t sure if she was more excited about the words that were coming to her so easily as she played Sarah or the surge of adrenaline and rush of freedom that was washing over her. Maybe Nadine was right.
“All right.” Anthony’s voice reverberated throughout the auditorium. “Now that you’ve met your unsuspecting partners, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. It won’t be difficult unless you make it so. You may or may not know the lucky soul that you’ve been placed with, but you will know a lot more about their inner desires and the depths of their passion after this little exercise.” Anthony cleared his throat, thoroughly enjoying the dramatic deliverance of his assignment idea. “Together, the two of you will write a work of art, may it be a poem, short story, or excerpt from a longer novel or novella. The genre shall be romance or, for you not so modest ladies and gents out there, even erotica is acceptable.” The room erupted into tittering and fits of giggles as people contemplated the idea. Lauren stole a glance in Dean’s direction and saw that he was still leaning on the armrest, using his hand to cover the grin that was slowly spreading across his face. Any confidence Lauren had been exuding instantaneously dissipated.
“I can’t write romance or erotica with you,” she stated emphatically, but her voice quivered, giving away her discomfort.
Dean turned his head slightly, not moving his hand away from the amused expression now plastered on his face.
“Oh, come on, Sarah. You don’t want to talk dirty to me?”
Lauren turned to look at Dean directly, not caring that her face was turning an obvious shade of red from embarrassment. How in the world was she supposed to rationally discuss and collaborate on a romantic story with a man like this? He was attractive, yes, but he also portrayed a level of cockiness and juvenile humor she couldn’t imagine having to deal with. The genre of romance would be difficult enough, let alone writing a full-fledged erotic piece with him. She couldn’t even imagine having to collaborate with her own husband on something like that.
At the front of the room, Anthony was attempting to calm his audience down. “I know, I know, you didn’t see that one coming.” He laughed. Lauren figured he probably only thought up such an assignment because of the shock value. Anthony was definitely a professor who taught outside the lines. “Really, when you think about it,” he was explaining, “There is no better icebreaker. Think of how much you’ll learn about your partner’s writing style! Think of how much you’ll learn about yourself, especially if you’ve never written with the aid of a partner before. It’s quite an enlightening situation to be in, really.”
Lauren doubted it, and a quick glance in Dean’s direction confirmed it. He was watching her, and evidently from his amused expression, her turmoil over this was written blatantly on her face. The fact that he was enjoying it was what really bothered Lauren.
She knew she couldn’t get around it. She had moved all the way from Texas for this, uprooting her life with her husband. This was supposed to be what she wanted, to have the opportunity to think outside the box and break down the walls that blocked her literary abilities from coming back up to the surface. Instead, she was over-thinking it, quickly coming up with a multitude of reasons why she couldn’t possibly go along with such an outlandish assignment. She needed this, and she needed to remember that. Lauren could practically hear Nadine saying the words again in her ear.
What would Sarah do?
“You have until the beginning of tomorrow’s class to hand in your work,” Anthony was saying. “Be bold! Be brave! And be sure to skim through the first chapter of the textbook so it at least looks like you’re being taught the tedious things the school board requires me to teach you.”
Lauren wasn’t bold or brave, but she had created the character of Sarah and she knew Sarah could be exactly those two things. Instead of finding all the reasons why she couldn’t or shouldn’t do this assignment, Sarah would be tackling it with an enthusiastic fervor. She didn’t have to like Dean in order to succeed in this assignment, she just needed to take control of it and use her imagination. Lauren took in a sharp breath and turned to Dean.
“Let’s do this.”
“I think the key here, Sarah, is that there still has to be that tension and conflict, even with romance or erotica.” Dean tapped his pencil against the plastic arm of the chair, watching her as he contemplated their next move. She let out a sigh of frustration.
“You’re just thinking it through too much,” he offered.
“I have to think about it in order to decide what to write, Dean.”
He arched a brow at her response. “Play with the idea. Don’t treat it like it’s work. You’re too rigid. It’s play, not work.”
After two hours of remaining huddled up in the back corner of the lecture theater, she and Dean had barely made any leeway on the assignment itself, but the building up of their idea was almost palpable. They were on the edge of something poetic. Ideas were scribbled haphazardly across the pages of his notebook, each of them taking turns grabbing for the pencil, jotting things down as the thoughts entered their minds. Alone, the words meant nothing, but together, there was something different there, Lauren could feel it.
What would Sarah do?It was time to try a new tactic. She breathed in and out, then began to talk herself through the concepts she was working with.
“Readers of romance are drawn to the darkness, the vulnerability of the characters they are reading about. What if…” Lauren grabbed the notebook from Dean’s hands, the pencil audibly scratching across the page as she pressed it erratically against the paper. Dean watched her, seeming intrigued. When she handed the pencil back to him and turned the notebook back over, it was Lauren’s turn to watch his reaction to the words she’d written.
The reckless robbing of breath and passion of others, the beating heart and boiling blood, halted by the creation of a…
Dean looked up at Lauren incredulously, and she blushed. “What? Too much?”
“Are you kidding? It’s fantastic. Dark, definitely deep. However,” Dean held the page out, then added a few words of his own and handed the notebook and pencil back to Lauren. “Your thought wasn’t finished yet.”
Lauren lowered her gaze to the page in front of her and bit her lip to hold back the gasp trapped in her throat.
Halted by the creation of a monster.
“A monster?” Lauren said.
“At first glance, my initial thought was of a need that can never be met, a passion and an urgency that can never be quenched. Not a physical monster, an emotional one.” Dean’s eyes locked with Lauren’s and a small grin played on his lips. “Maybe that’s what love is.” Then he shrugged. “You wanted darkness and vulnerability.”
His eyes were sparkling with mischievousness. Lauren felt engulfed by the train of thought, the words suddenly tumbling from the depths of her imagination with such reckless abandon she could almost hear a seductive voice in her own mind whispering them to her, begging for her to eternalize them on the page before her.
“Give me that.” Lauren picked up the pencil again and began to write feverishly, the adrenaline and urgency overtaking her. Dean turned his head awkwardly to see her words as they appeared on the paper, staying silent as he let her work through the thought. Finished, she gave him a satisfied grin and handed him the page.
The longing to stake and burn my inner demons overcomes me, yet the unbearable hunger for release overpowers all else.
“Christ, Sarah,” Dean whispered. He raised his eyes to hers and smiled fully this time. “It sounds like a living, breathing monster, but that monster is within us all. The desire, the physical need that takes over our rational thinking. It’s dark, it’s vulnerable, but it’s also truth in its most raw form. Spectacular.”
Lauren returned his smile with one of her own, feeling accomplished and proud. She’d finally had a good idea and been able to put it down onto paper. That was more than she’d been able to do in weeks.
“You’re pretty spectacular yourself, Dean,” she admitted, and she meant it.
The sun was already beginning to set when Lauren made her way back to the dormitory. The excitement and sense of accomplishment she felt after spending the day creating such a poetic piece of writing with someone so passionate and intrigued by the craft had relieved her so much that she’d walked an extra fifteen minutes in order to pick up a bottle of cheap wine, in a carton no less, at the closest convenience store.
It wasn’t the greatest wine, but it didn’t matter. Lauren had been freed of her writer’s block, her imagination had been set on fire by collaboration with a like-minded fellow student, and she felt fantastic for being able to aid in the writing of a piece of work she may never have delved into otherwise. She deserved a little celebration, and if cheap wine and an evening of working on her own novel was what she wanted, she hoped her newly unlocked imagination would allow for it.
Once inside with her dorm room door locked, Lauren set the carton of wine on her desk and reached for her cell phone as she kicked off her shoes, hoping to hear Michael’s voice and tell him of the day’s achievements. For the second time that day, the phone continued to ring three times and then went to voice mail. Upon hearing the disembodied robotic male voice advise her to leave a message at the tone, Lauren did her best not to sound too deflated over not being able to get in touch with him.
“Hey Michael, it’s just me. What a day. Call me when you have a moment and I’ll tell you all about it. I love you.”
She ended the call and set the phone up to charge. She knew she should call Nadine and rattle on about the day’s events, but decided to wait. Hopefully, she would be able to share her feeling of pride with Michael first. He would call her back. She would wait for him.
After changing into her silk pajama pants and thin-strapped tank top, Lauren sat down in front of her laptop. She twisted off the plastic top to open the wine while she waited for the computer to boot up. One sip from the carton was all it took for her to know she wouldn’t be buying cheap wine in a box again. Nevertheless, bad wine was better than no wine.
The computer flashed to life and the screen displayed the same scene Lauren had been battling for weeks, the flashing cursor at the end of the same sentence. In the scene, Sarah had just glanced up with the intent of coolly dismissing the valiant voice that requested to buy her a drink, only to meet the gaze of a man whose eyes have caused her breath to catch in her throat. He was meant to be the one Sarah needed, the man who wasn’t intimidated by her self-assured ways. However, she had been such an independent and assertive character from the beginning, Lauren struggled with creating the kind of man someone like Sarah would want. She didn’t need to be taken care of, protected, or babied.
Lauren struggled with the concept that a woman like Sarah would desire an equal, someone to match her strength and complement her passion for life. The more Lauren thought about it, the more she realized her struggling was caused by her own inability to identify with Sarah, not the mysterious love interest that eluded her.
Today, Lauren had gotten the first forbidden taste of what it was like to be Sarah, to feel that power and confidence in her every pore. She had found out what it was like to face a situation that Lauren herself would have cowered at, while Sarah relished in it and controlled it so that she could use it for the creative outlet that it was. Sarah was powerful, impressive, and intriguing as a character, and until today, Lauren had never thought of nor met anyone who could match her assertiveness as well as her creativity on such a passionate and intimate level.
But Dean could. While her first impression had been of a cocky and possibly even juvenile twenty-something, his love and passion for the beauty that could be held within the written word was almost contagious. He had been able to see Lauren’s idea, the mere few words she’d written on a piece of paper, and follow the shadowy path to express the darker side of desire exactly how Lauren had intended. She was only assuming, but she guessed that some of the giggling teenagers in the front row wouldn’t have had a clue what they had meant. Dean, however, hadn’t missed a beat.
Lauren took another swig from the carton of wine, curled her nose up as she drank it down, and began to hit the keys on her keyboard, describing him and his presence. Sarah would love him, from his dark eyes to the poetic way he spoke and owned the space he occupied. As the rhythmic tapping of the keys became faster and more urgent, Lauren knew this moment was the sole reason she had come all the way to New York.
She had come here to bring out her inner Sarah.
There was an energetic buzz among the students the next morning. It seemed Lauren wasn’t the only one filled with nervous excitement over handing in their first assignment. Also, as Anthony had so dramatically explained, the assignment had evidently brought the paired students, and perhaps even the class as a whole, closer together. The bodies were now crammed into the first nine or ten rows of seats in the room instead of being scattered about. Lauren herself had boldly moved closer to the front, choosing another aisle seat only nine rows back.
She sipped her coffee and turned in her seat to look for Dean. When she didn’t see him, her initial thought was to panic.Calm down, she told herself,there is still another fifteen minutes or so until class starts, and Anthony isn’t even here yet. She wrapped her gloved hands tighter around the coffee cup and turned back around.
The closeness of the voice beside her startled her, and Lauren almost dropped the cup in her hands. Eyes wide, she gripped it tightly and turned her gaze to the blond woman who had slipped into the seat beside her. “Oh, hey. You scared me.” Lauren offered her a sheepish smile as she attempted to slow her pulse rate.
“I noticed, sorry. I guess you were intent on looking for someone and didn’t realize I sat down. I’m Libby.” The woman held out her hand. Instantly, Lauren wondered if her smile was genuine, then she mentally chastised herself for being so judgmental. She reminded herself that this was her time to change the ways she was set in. She was supposed to be Sarah, after all.
“Sarah. I’m Sarah.” Lauren removed a gloved hand from the warm cup and shook Libby’s hand gently. “How’d you fair with yesterday’s assignment?”
Libby bit her lip and sat back into the seat, unzipping her jacket partially. “I was late, actually. My plane got in late and I didn’t get here until everyone had been paired up. One of the girls in the front row told me what the assignment was, so I did my best on my own to come up with something. Let’s just say that sexual exploitation through words is not really my forte.”
Lauren laughed. “It wasn’t that bad, was it? I mean, it was interesting to have to collaborate with someone else on a project like that, but I think Dean and I did well.” Lauren didn’t want to sound too sure of herself and, at the mention of his name, cast a glance toward the doors, still not seeing him.
“Dean? Oh, I think I know who you mean. You two were up toward the back of the room, right? I’m sure that was a bit awkward, discussing sexual tension with a man you’d only just met.” Libby’s amused grin was contagious.
Lauren shrugged, struggling not to seem embarrassed at the thought of it. “Like I said, we collaborated well. I think the outcome of our efforts was both mature and insightful.” The assertive statement escaped Lauren’s lips before she had time to realize it might come across as short if taken the wrong way. Immediately, she flashed a smile at Libby and added, “But I do hope to not have to do it again anytime soon.”
Lauren’s gaze landed on the door opening at the left entrance of the room. She watched Anthony shuffle in, his armful of books and papers and a laptop bag slung over his shoulder making it difficult to get past the heavy door that threatened to close before he and his luggage were safely inside.
“Looks like class is about to start soon,” Libby said.
“Here we go again,” Lauren muttered quietly, and Libby laughed, reaching over the arm of the chair to pat her hand.
“I will leave you two to go at it again,” and she winked at Lauren. Questioningly, Lauren arched an eyebrow and watched Libby stand, smiling at the sight of someone beside her. Lauren turned to see Dean coming down the central aisle, his eyes set on her.
When Lauren turned back to tell Libby she didn’t have to leave, Libby was already side-stepping past other students and making her way to a seat toward the front, giving Lauren a quick wave before lowering herself into a chair. Lauren wondered if she knew some of the students in the front of the room.
“Hey, sorry I’m late for the big reveal,” Dean remarked as he placed his book bag and jacket into the chair beside him. He sat down and watched Anthony prepare for class, a stack of papers placed in front of him.
“Big reveal?” Somehow, Lauren didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah, Anthony told me yesterday afternoon when I was handing our assignment in that he was going to be reading a few of the submissions to the class. I don’t think he intends to name names though.”
Lauren’s first inclination was to groan in protest. Her intention had never been to show that assignment to anyone other than the professor himself. It was a written secret between Anthony, Dean, and herself. She wanted to protest. She wanted to agonize over other people being privy to their little secret. Instead, she did what Sarah would do.
“Interesting. I’m curious to know if our masterpiece will be chosen.”
Dean smiled. “It was a masterpiece, wasn’t it? We work well together, you and me.”
Lauren bit the inside of her lip and faced the front when she heard Anthony clear his throat.
“Good morning, everyone,” Anthony said. “Well, it’s safe to say that yesterday’s assignment was an eye opener for some of you. Some of you obviously struggled with the genre, feared the subject at hand, or even showed reluctance to delve into the sensuality and sexuality I had hoped you’d attempt to convey. That said, it was also blatantly obvious that some of you took a no-holds-barred approach and tackled the subject matter with such exquisite raw strength that I look forward to reading your upcoming assignments. We have a classroom full of literary geniuses in the making, my friends!” The excited whispering that followed his exclamation was quickly cut off as he continued.
“Every now and then, a piece of prose comes along that makes a reader and writer stop in his tracks. When that moment occurs, the world as we know it seems to temporarily stop turning on its axis and the way we view that world is forever changed. I had one of those rare moments last night while I sat in my armchair at home reading through some of the assignments handed in.” A few of the girls in the front row visibly deflated, their shoulders slumped in disappointment. Either they had waited until that morning to hand in their assignments, or they hadn’t handed one in at all. One way or another, they seemed to know Anthony wasn’t referring to their work.
“One pair constructed something so darkly seductive, so riskily pensive, that I dare say their words could be used to define not only the unsustainable hunger for the most intimate of desires, but also the innate drive that cause all of us to act in our day-to-day lives despite our knowing that right or wrong fails to always exist when the need for power and control overwhelms the whole of our being.” Anthony’s hand came up to his chest, a gesture of how much he meant what he was saying.
Dean and Lauren turned to look at each other at the same time, their eyes transfixed in a knowing stare. There was no arrogance or cockiness in the fact that they both knew Anthony was discussing their work. They had felt it as well when they’d written it together. The despair, turmoil, and internal hatred at wanting and needing something or someone so intensely that no amount of physical or emotional release could ever quench the unyielding thirst for that person’s mind, body, and soul. It was the thought they had attempted to portray through simple words, and evidently their attempt had been successful.
“The reckless robbing of breath and passion of others…” Anthony’s voice echoed loudly throughout the room as he read the words Lauren and Dean had painstakingly pieced together the previous day.
It was a short poem, but the hours it had taken for them to get it just right had been worth it. Even as Lauren heard her professor recite the words she now knew so well, she was struck by the demanding presence of the piece, how she heard the words as though she could see their meaning with her eyes.
She thought she would be humiliated to have those sensual, intimate words read out loud, but upon hearing the artful seduction of the poem they’d created, how perfectly it all had come together, she felt the sudden urge to announce to everyone that she had been so intricately involved in the making of it.
“Congratulations, Sarah,” Dean whispered, leaning in close to her ear. “Our first success.”
Lauren beamed back at Dean. Success was putting it mildly in her eyes. Right now, she was convinced she could do anything, write anything, and be anything. She also knew that she had Dean and his creative mind to thank for it.
“These two melded their minds together and made pure, passionate love on paper!” Anthony announced as he waved his hands around. The classroom erupted into fits of laughter, brought on both by Anthony’s theatrical methods of explanation and his enlightening phrases. From the corner of Lauren’s eye, she could see that Dean was glancing her way. She kept her focus ahead, but bit her lip to stifle the grin she knew was threatening to appear.
“I shall be honored to behold what this heavenly pair of minds will conceive in our next assignment,” Anthony said, and Lauren noticed he was careful never to make eye contact with her or Dean while singing their praises. There was the possibility that he didn’t know who they were, but more plausible was that he was being careful to allow everyone their anonymity. Lauren respected him for that. Her and Dean’s secret was theirs to keep or theirs to share if they sought fit.
The room grew quiet as Anthony began to pass around a list of pages for his students to read if they chose to keep up with the required curriculum. Once again, he stated his belief that, after reading the first assignments handed in, he was more than convinced very few of the people enrolled in this program would have any trouble with such basic writing requirements. However, the choice was theirs to follow along or not. Lauren wondered idly how many printouts would be left strewn across the chairs and floor of the auditorium when everyone went home later that afternoon. After the pages were passed out, Anthony smiled mischievously and explained the next assignment.
“Take an excerpt of something you’ve already written, or, if you need to, you can write something new. Either way, I want you to write something in the voice of someone else. Take a gamble, my friends! Who have you always wanted to be? Is there a particular trait you’ve always yearned to possess? In this assignment, you can be exactly who you want to be! There is no right or wrong answer. I just want you to take on the persona of a character, someone so unlike you that you struggle to see how you yourself could have ever been the author of such a piece of work. Same rules apply. Hand it in tonight before you leave or tomorrow morning. You are brave, remember that!” Once again, Anthony’s constant hand gestures and flair for drama caused muffled laughter from his audience.
“Is it just me, or does he get crazier with each passing moment?” Dean chuckled.
Students were beginning to turn to their partners and discuss the wild ideas they had for their new assignments. Lauren looked toward the front row where Libby had turned to face her. She winked at Lauren and then turned away to pack up her things.
Lauren turned back to Dean. The second assignment had been dealt, and she couldn’t believe her luck. Not only could she write the assignment tonight on her own time, she had already done the research. She had spent the last two classes not only pretending to be someone she wasn’t, but beginning to believe it herself.
Being Sarah had allowed her a sense of freedom she hadn’t felt in ages, perhaps ever.
“Maybe we all get a little crazier as we go,” Lauren said in a low voice.
As she sat perched in her chair in the auditorium, she became aware of the muffled ringing of her cell phone. She dug for it and smiled when she read Michael’s name on the caller display.
“I was beginning to think you had skipped town yourself,” she joked when she answered it.
“As you can imagine, my attempt at working less hours is proving to be more difficult than I expected. How’s New York? You a city girl yet?”
Lauren scoffed at the idea. “Hardly. You have to take out a second mortgage on your house just to afford a coffee with a fancy name around here. I miss regular coffee and our quiet life that allowed us to make it at home. I miss you.” The hollowness of her words hit her unexpectedly. Of course, she did miss Michael.
Did she miss the rural life she’d left behind, though? She realized she hadn’t given it a second thought since she had turned and headed for the plane. She didn’t have the heart to admit that to Michael.
“I miss you, too.”
Lauren thought she could hear emotional distance in Michael’s tone. Was it a sense of loneliness, perhaps? Maybe the guilt that still chipped away at the back of Lauren’s mind was just playing tricks on her. Maybe she just thought Michael would be lonely without her. She couldn’t be sure, especially not after only a few days.
“I did really well on my first assignment yesterday. Things are going great.”
“That’s good. What was it about? The assignment, I mean?”
Lauren bit her lip. “Oh, I just spruced up one of the excerpts from the romance novel I’ve been working on and handed it in hoping for a critique from the professor. He liked it, though.”
“Ah, more of that gushy stuff you want to write, huh?”
Lauren almost laughed. The assignment had included the option for eroticism. The topic was far from mushy romance, but that was another thing she didn’t feel like getting into with Michael.
“Something like that, I suppose. I’m working on my second assignment now.”
“Meet anyone interesting?”
The air suddenly grew thick around Lauren and she struggled to maintain breathing at a normal pace. Her mind began to spin in multiple directions.Dean.Did she want to tell Michael about him? The more Lauren realized she didn’t want to mention him, the more it bothered her.
“Libby. Her name is Libby.” Lauren swallowed the lump in her throat and struggled to compose herself. “She’s just a girl in my class. Only spoke to her for a few minutes, but she seemed nice enough.”
“Well, it’s only been a few days. With a bit more time, you might meet some other people.”
Lauren brought her hand to her throat, convinced she could feel her pulse threatening to beat its way out of her body. “Perhaps you’re right.”
“Look, Lauren, I should go. I just thought I should return your call seeing as you called a few times last night and this morning. Have a good day, okay?”
“Oh, okay. Will I talk to you again tonight?” She didn’t want to sound needy or like she was keeping tabs on him, but she did want to talk to him again before she went to sleep, even just for a moment.
“I’ll try, Lauren. I love you.”
Once again, she heard the call end before she’d even said goodbye to him. She pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at it.
“Is it going to do tricks?”
Lauren snapped her head up to see Libby standing in front of her clutching her own cell phone in her hand. She smiled at the woman and shrugged, tossing the phone back into the bag in front of her. “No, I just don’t know if it’s working right, that’s all.”
As if on cue, the cell in Libby’s hand began to ring, glowing bright blue with each tone. “Well, it looks like mine is working just fine.” Her eyes lit up when she saw what Lauren assumed was the name on her caller display. A lover, perhaps? The romantic in Lauren hoped it was. She also felt a small tug of jealousy. It had been a long time since Lauren had that reaction due to someone else.
“Anyways,” Libby said in a rushed tone. “I need to take this call, but I have to leave a bit early. If something interesting happens, will you let me know? I can’t miss all the fun.”
Lauren chuckled. “Of course. I was thinking of hitting up the campus cafe later, but I’ll be staying until class ends anyway.”
“Cool, I can meet you at the cafe if you want some company. We can talk shop for a bit,” Libby offered with a smile. The expression on Lauren’s face must have registered as uncertainty rather than the shock she was feeling because Libby quickly added, “Only if you want to, though.”
“No, no, that’s great, sure.” Lauren felt silly for coming across like she didn’t want the company. She did. “I just can’t say there’s ever been a time when I’ve been able to sit down and talk shop, as you call it, with anyone.” Lauren laughed as she made quotations with her fingers in the air. “I’d like that. Seriously.” She glanced down at the time on her cell phone. “How about four-thirty or so? I should be able to finish up the class and make it there by then.”
“Sounds awesome. See you at the cafe then, Sarah.” Libby hurried up the stairs of the center aisle to leave the lecture theater through one of the back doors.
“Cafe, huh? I could use some coffee myself.”
Lauren turned from the direction Libby was headed to face Dean, a lopsided grin on his face as he pushed his laptop bag higher onto his shoulder. Where in the world was everyone coming from? Sometimes, she could go for hours without speaking a word out loud, yet she’d just talked with Michael, Libby, and now Dean in rapid succession.
“Hey, I didn’t see you there.” As soon as she said it, Lauren felt foolish. She was sure it was quite obvious she wasn’t sure what to say.
“Well, seeing as you kind of deserted me as soon as Anthony set us all loose to work on our assignment, you’d think I would have gotten the hint. Good thing I’m not easily swayed.” Dean crouched down by the corner of Lauren’s seat and smiled up at her. She got the feeling he was trying to tell her something more, but she didn’t have it in her to decipher it right now. Besides, it was taking everything she had not to blush like crazy.
It turned out, even as Sarah, she wasn’t as smooth and stealthy as she wanted to be.
“I didn’t desert you,” Lauren defended herself. “You were talking to that dark-haired girl, I think her name was Jessica. I thought maybe you two knew each other, so I didn’t want to be a third wheel. I came back here to work on the assignment, that’s all. It had little to do with you.” Now, she was babbling, and she knew it. At this point, she needed to just stop talking because she wasn’t sure if her explanation was making things better or worse.
“We were just discussing the professor’s reaction to the first assignment and the unknown pair who wrote such gorgeous, romantic words.” He winked at her. “Her description, not mine.” His grin was cocky, and Lauren couldn’t help but smile. The satisfaction he felt about their public recognition was obvious. She couldn’t lie, she felt like she’d won the lottery.
“Did you tell her?”
“That it was us who made love on paper? Nah, I don’t kiss and tell.”
Lauren felt her face flush as she gave a nervous chuckle.
“You are too much.” She shook her head, laughing to herself more to fill the gap in conversation than in response to the humor.
“You have no idea,” Dean said with a sly smirk as he raised himself up to stand, hauling his laptop bag up with him. As he slung it back over his shoulder, he asked, “So, how about a coffee? You mentioned the cafe, now I’m in the mood.”
“I kind of have some work to do, Dean. And according to the professor who assigned another project, I think you do, too.”
“Come on, we’re practically his favorite students right now. Let’s not break the trend while we’re ahead.” He held out a hand. “Or is there someone you have to rush home to?”
Lauren knew very well his choice of words was deliberate. He was asking her about having coffee with him, but his real question was whether she was taken or not. Lauren’s eyes didn’t meet his, and the struggle going on in her mind told her in no uncertain terms to be straight with him.
She had a husband. If she said those words, all his flirting and suggestive comments would undoubtedly stop. Their relationship would remain purely platonic and she wouldn’t have to worry about mentioning him to Michael during their next conversation because there would be nothing to tell other than how they had collaborated on their first assignment and won the praises of their professor.
Was that what Lauren wanted? Better yet, was that what Sarah wanted? Did Sarah need Dean in all his flirtatious glory in order to succeed in this course? Her mind immediately went to the night before, the way her fingers had flown over the keys, words being strung together across the computer screen as fast as she could type them.
Sarah, her character, needed Dean. He was a part of this story, the one who had helped Lauren unleash the fever that was driving her to write the romantic story between Sarah and her new lover. The male character Lauren had written into the story last night had fit Dean’s description. From the dark wavy hair to the chocolate eyes that seemed to see and suggest more than she would normally allow, Dean was a part of this story.
She wasn’t sure who needed him more, her or Sarah, but for right now, that didn’t matter. Right now, she knew he was needed and she couldn’t stop this charade purely because it would be the right thing to do. Sarah would never allow for that.
“It’s just coffee,” she stated, giving Dean a sly grin of her own.
If she had left it at that, she wouldn’t have done anything wrong. But the moment she casually slipped her gloves off her hands, her wedding ring hidden inside, and pushed the gloves into her bag, she knew some sort of line had been crossed, she just wasn’t sure what it meant. Right now, Sarah didn’t care.
“I don’t think you were as surprised as you pretended to be that Anthony liked our first assignment, were you?”
Dean sat across the table from Lauren in the heavenly smelling cafe, nursing a to-go cup of dark roast coffee with milk, steam floating in misty swirls from the opening in the lid. Lauren hadn’t been planning to order anything, but Dean insisted. His treat, he said. She had been about to persist and decline again, but felt she may need something else to focus on should their conversation take an unexpected turn. She was Sarah, after all. She had to watch what she said while also taking note of Dean’s remarks and his mannerisms. She may be able to use them later when she sat down at her computer to continue writing her novel.
Lauren shrugged, her bare hands clutching the small coffee in front of her. “That piece was different, unlike anything I’d written previously. Call me crazy, but I guess you could say I knew there was something different about it, something personal, stripped, and overwhelming. You and I both were unable to ignore the urgency of it as we tried to perfect it. I was confident that Anthony would have that same inability.” Her lips were pressed in a firm grin as she raised her cup to her lips, never taking her eyes off Dean as she stared at him over the rim of it.
“Well said,” Dean remarked, taking a sip of his own. “You surprise me, Sarah.”
Lauren arched an eyebrow. “Oh? And why is that?”
He put his cup down. “It’s like I can’t quite figure you out. I mean, you’re obviously extremely talented in the craft of writing, I’ll give you that. There isn’t a person in that class that could argue with that. However, the part I don’t get is that sometimes you’re so sure of yourself, to the point where you can almost be intimidating. Then again, it seems like there are moments when that foundation of confidence wavers, and an uncertainty comes shining through the cracks in that foundation that make me question what it is that is really driving you, who you really are.”
“Who I really am?” Lauren’s voice came out weaker and more fearful than she intended. The mask she’d been attempting to wear refused to stay on. She evidently had yet to master the art of staying in character.
Dean offered a small smile. “I’m sorry, Sarah, I don’t mean to be asking personal questions or putting you in an awkward position. I’m one of those people who kind of calls it like I see it. With you, I like what I see even though I’m not actually sure what I’m seeing, if that makes sense.” He leaned in closer and his smile grew bigger. In a lowered voice, he said, “Who is Sarah? That’s what I want to find out.”
With that, he leaned back, giving Lauren her space again. Unfortunately, it seemed that an inability to make her own voice audible had overcome her. Any answer and statement she made now would seem like a cover up, no matter how she phrased it. She wasn’t prepared to tell him who Sarah was, mostly because she hadn’t quite figured that out herself. However, their eyes were fixed on each other and Dean was obviously awaiting a rebuttal.
“Am I interrupting?”
Lauren broke eye contact with Dean and looked up to see Libby standing in front of their table, a glint in her eye as she switched her gaze between them. Lauren fought the immediate urge to defend herself, wanting to say it was nothing, just coffee with a friend. Without looking in Dean’s direction, she leaned back slightly and waved her hand to one of the empty tables beside theirs.
“Not at all, Libby. Pull up a chair,” she managed. She hoped her voice sounded more casual to them than it did to her.
“You sure you don’t mind?” Libby’s amusement was obvious, and Dean sent a knowing smirk in Lauren’s direction as well. He was fully aware of what Libby was thinking and he didn’t seem to mind.
“Not at all. You know Dean, right? He and I were partnered up in class.”
Libby turned to drag a chair toward their table and then held out her hand to Dean. “Good to meet you, Dean. Let me get myself a coffee and I’ll be right back.”
Lauren nodded with a weak smile and watched Libby head over to the counter. It took Dean only a second to lean forward and whisper, “She thinks there’s something going on between us, I think.”
Lauren rolled her eyes but knew he was right. She would have to set Libby straight. “I’ll be sure to let her know that’s not the case, don’t worry.”
“You mean there isn’t?” Dean’s words caught her off guard, and the mischievous grin that followed them made her stomach knot in apprehension. She opened her mouth twice, intent on saying something that would diffuse the topic, but instead she was halted with a gentle pat of Dean’s hand against hers and a wink.
“I’ll let you two talk about whatever it is women talk about.” Dean squeezed her hand before getting to his feet. As he slung his laptop bag onto his shoulder and plucked his to-go cup from the table, he set his eyes on Lauren once more. “Please let Libby know it was a pleasure to meet her. See you in class tomorrow, Sarah.” She watched him turn and walk out of the cafe, the bell above the door sending a shrill toll throughout the room. She then turned to see Libby receive her change back from the barista and head back to the table, a to-go cup in hand.
“Where’d he go?” Libby asked, staring at the closed door as though it held the answer.
“He wanted to work on his assignment, I think,” Lauren lied. Well, maybe he was, but she was convinced he’d departed in that moment so she would be left with their conversation on her mind. Had he been joking when he questioned whether or not there was something going on between them? Surely, he must have been.
“Oh.” Libby pulled the third chair back to the table beside them and sat down in the one Dean had vacated. “Well, that means we can talk about him now, at least. I think he likes you, you know.” Libby’s eyes lit up like a hopeless romantic watching the ending of a chick flick. Lauren loved romanticizing things just as much as the next person, but it was a little different when the subject was yourself. And the love interest wasn’t your husband.
“I thought we were going to discuss the new assignment, or even something class related?” Her coffee was growing cold, but Lauren didn’t care. She took a sip from it to gain a few moments to plan how best to steer the conversation in another direction. Libby, however, had plans of her own.
“Come on, Sarah, he’s interested in you. Who wants to discuss class and assignments when we can sit here, get a caffeine jolt, and talk about him and how he’s been keeping an eye on you?”
Lauren shook her head, but was admittedly a bit amused. “You’re being dramatic.”
“No, I’m being honest. You’re being blind. Besides, we’re women, aren’t we supposed to be dramatic?” Libby laughed, shaking her finger at Lauren in mock scolding.
Lauren held her hands up in surrender. “We were partners in class once, so now we should hook up?” She chuckled.
“Everyone knows you two wrote that sexy little assignment Anthony was raving about.”
Libby’s revelation made Lauren stop and think. How did everyone know that? Anthony must have told someone or made reference to them in some way. However, the more she thought about it, she had to ask herself, why did it matter? Why keep hidden the fact that she and Dean had written such a beautiful piece of work? Did it hurt anyone to know they were the creators of it?
“I didn’t realize it was public knowledge,” Lauren said.
“Oh, trust me, it is.”
“We followed the instructions and wrote a poem. It wasn’t a big clandestine affair.” She tried to make light of it, shrugging before taking another drink of her cold coffee.
“Are you seeing anybody?”
Lauren watched Libby’s gaze drift to her hands wrapped around the cup in front of her. For the second time that day, she found herself unsure of what to say. She knew the correct answer, the right thing to do. What she needed to do was be honest with Libby and Dean and tell them her name wasn’t Sarah. She had a husband at home in Texas and she was struggling to play the part of her main character in her novel in real life as a way of seeing how she reacted in everyday situations.
She should be honest with everyone, including herself. This was a bad idea that had already gone too far, she just hadn’t realized how far it had gone until she made the awful decision to remove her wedding ring. She’d only been gone from Texas for five days and she’d already stripped herself of her wedding band. That should have been a warning bell that it was time to call off the game and come clean with everyone around her.
Instead, she swallowed what little respect she had left for herself and looked at Libby with a defiant glare. “No, but that’s not really the point, now is it?” There it was, a lie to someone who wanted to be her friend in this vast city where she knew no one and still had months to go by herself.
She wanted to tell Libby the truth, she really did, but there was no way she could let the facade down and ruin her chances of being able to write again. Being Sarah was the most eye-opening, creative endeavor she had experienced yet, if she didn’t count her collaboration with Dean. She needed to be Sarah right now, even if it was the wrong thing for her to do. The truth could surface later, but right now was not the time to destroy the scenario she’d unknowingly created. It was only temporary, and she reminded herself of that. It wasn’t as if anyone would get hurt.
Libby arched a brow. “Then what is the point?”
Lauren drew herself up and rested her elbows on the table. “If he’s interested in me, who’s to say I’m interested in him?”
Libby snickered, leaning forward to match her pose. “I don’t even know you, Sarah, but I’m calling your bluff.”
“You think I’m interested in Dean?”
Libby nodded matter-of-factly. “Any woman who has ever been interested in a man would know that you are, so yes, I suppose I do.” She grinned back at Lauren, giving her a stare that dared her to deny it.
Lauren pursed her lips together. “Well, Libby, it seems as though you think you’ve got me pretty figured out.”
“Sarah, I might know you better than you think.”
Lauren didn’t blink, giving Libby the opportunity to say more, but instead she pushed her hands against the table and got to her feet.
“Just go out with him, will you?” she said as she pulled her jacket back on. “You’ll never know if there’s really something there until you do.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” After a pause, Lauren added, “I’ll think about it.”
Libby rolled her eyes as she picked up her coffee from the table and turned to leave.
“Just do it. Seriously, what harm could it do?”
Libby’s words seemed to haunt Lauren as the next few days passed by. Dean didn’t make it any easier on her, choosing to seek her out before each class and sit beside her. The same amused grin was plastered on his face each time he took his seat.
“Trying to dissuade me from sitting with you, Sarah?” he asked her once as he pulled his notebook and pen from the depths of his laptop bag.
It was all Lauren could do to keep from blushing. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want to be near Dean, quite the opposite actually. Her movements around the room to see if he would follow were a test of sorts, a challenge to see his reaction to the distance she kept between them. So far, Dean was playing right into her hand. She couldn’t deny he was attracted to her. She couldn’t deny her attraction to him either, for that matter, but her focus on him was largely for the purpose of her novel.
Sarah wanted a man like Dean, and if leading him on a little was the only way to use him and gain leeway in the completion of her book, she would do it. In a few months, she would head home and never see him again anyway. It was college, and she knew enough about the typical college lifestyle to know she wasn’t the only one out there using someone on campus to get what she needed. What she needed just happened to be something completely different from what the typical college student was looking for. It wasn’t her usual style, and she didn’t particularly like the fact that she was using someone as nice as Dean the way she was. Perhaps Sarah was a bit more vindictive than Lauren thought she was.
“Just trying to find my place in this room, I suppose.”
“Your place is wherever the pen in your hand or the keys under your fingers takes you,” Dean said with a grin. “Wherever that is, I still hope I can be somewhere close by.”
What a thoughtful thing to say. She made a mental note to use it in her novel later that night. Dean always seemed to come up with the most poetic things to say. His words had been repeated on the pages she wrote numerous times in the past few days. Though not formally partners in their creative writing class for the last few assignments, Lauren couldn’t help but consult Dean and his creative mind. It was intriguing how the two of them could receive the same assignment from Anthony and yet submit two very different assignments based on their interpretation of the instructions.
“I think you should go out with me sometime, Sarah.” Dean was leaning sideways in his chair just after class. His legs were sprawled out in front of him and he turned his head to catch Lauren’s gaze in his. It wasn’t the first time those words had formed on his lips, and Lauren was aware he was once again preparing himself for her to reject his proposal.
“We’ve been through this, Dean.” Lauren attempted to give him a half smile, not wanting to be rude as she let him down as gently as she could. “You’re great, I’ve told you that. I just can’t go out with anyone right now. I have to focus on the course and my writing. That’s why I'm here.”
Dean’s eyes glinted with a hint of humor. “Yeah, yeah. I’ve heard you telling me that. However, I’m here for the same reasons you are, Sarah. Meeting someone like you at the same time just wasn’t a part of the enrollment package I had expected.”
When he said things like that, it became more and more difficult for her to ignore his advances. Lauren couldn’t deny their connection, both physically and creatively. She may have been playing hard to get, leading him on unfairly, but she knew she was giving him subtle signals and vague comments that were feeding his attraction and coaxing him to continue his quest to take their relationship beyond the literary level. The thing was, Lauren was beginning to find fewer and fewer reasons to ignore him any longer. Sure, she was still married to her husband and still living under the pretense of being someone else entirely, but she was beginning to feel that she was getting better at it, somehow able to distinguish between the actions Lauren was taking and the ones done by Sarah.
The guilt she’d been plagued by in her first days of being in New York had been replaced by excitement and intrigue by the situation she’d never planned on putting herself in. As chapter upon chapter of her novel poured from her each evening as she sat in front of her computer monitor, she felt unstoppable, almost invincible. She had Dean to thank for that, but ultimately the drive and bravery had come from Sarah.
Sarah. The woman with an abundance of confidence, an appeal that made men stop and take notice of her, and a drive to get what she truly wanted from life. Sarah and Lauren were nothing alike.
“It’s been three weeks since classes started,” Dean said. “Go out with me once. You never know, you might enjoy yourself. Then I’ll let you get back home to that book you’re always slaving away on.” During one of their impromptu conversations between classes, Lauren had surprised herself by confiding in Dean about the novel she’d been writing. She had to be careful not to mention the previous book she’d written and published, needing to hide her true identity, but she’d felt relief at being able to discuss the romantic plot line so openly.
“You’ll not stop at only going out once, Dean,” Lauren admonished.
“You mean I’ll be begging for more? How self-assured you are.” His eyes shone with mischief as Lauren tapped her pen against her chin, her amusement outlined on her face.
“I meant that you’re persistent enough, you won’t stop if I agree to go out with you one time.”
“I won’t stop if you don’t either. Humor me, Sarah. One date.”
A heavy silence fell between them as she searched his eyes for the answer. In them, she saw only determination. He was sure he had her. Lauren, on the other hand, could hear the small voice in the back of her mind telling her it would be wrong, she couldn’t do such a thing to Michael.
“Dean…” she began, keeping her expression blank.
“I need to talk to Sarah.”
Lauren and Dean both broke their eye contact and looked upward. Libby stood there, giving a small wave. “I need to talk to you,” she repeated. “Alone.”
For the first time, a flash of annoyance was visible on Dean’s face, but it disappeared as quickly as it came. He tucked his notebook and pen into his bag and stood. “I’ll go get us some coffee, Sarah. To give you two some time. Would you like anything at the cafe, Libby?”
“Nothing for me. Thanks though, Dean.” Libby took an eager step back, giving Dean ample room to get past her and out of the way. Whatever she had to say, it must be important.
He gave her a curt nod and turned back to Lauren. “I’ll be back. Dark roast, one sugar, one cream?”
“Sounds lovely. Thank you, Dean.” Lauren set her pen and notepad down, watching him turn and descend the stairs leading down to the front entrance of the room. By the time the door shut firmly behind him, Libby was already perched in his chair, staring at her incredulously.
“Are you nuts?” she blurted out. Lauren, eyes wide in confusion, answered with a disbelieving chuckle.
“Last time I checked, no. What are you talking about, Libby?”
“You’re actually going to turn him down again, aren’t you?”
Her jaw dropped slightly. “You were eavesdropping on us?”
“I’m only two rows away, don’t be so surprised. Besides, anyone in this room, no matter where they’re sitting, can tell by the looks on both of your faces exactly what you’re discussing. Blatant chemistry, my dear Sarah. You and Dean have it. So why in God’s name are you denying it?”
Because I’m married to a good man back in Texas and know I should feel riddled by guilt for the way I’ve treated both Dean and Michael, Lauren thought to herself. The part that frightened her the most was that she didn’t feel the guilt the way she knew she should. What kind of person had she become in the short weeks since moving to New York?
“Libby, it’s complicated. I’m here to work, not find a date,” Lauren said. “Besides,” she added, “Do we really know each other enough to be discussing this so heatedly?”
Libby sat up straight and crossed her arms. “Oh, please, Sarah. Fine, we’ll go out for drinks later, giggle like little school girls about all the cute boys, and then braid each other’s hair while we bond. Better?” She glared at Lauren in disbelief. “Really, I thought you were more adventurous than that, Sarah.”
The words hit Lauren like a ton of bricks. She wanted to be adventurous, take the necessary chances in order to find out who Sarah really was. If even Libby could see that Sarah wasn’t being as bold and tenacious as she thought she could be, how could Lauren ever fully learn from Sarah all she needed to know? Was she taming Sarah and pushing her away by not going out with Dean?
“I am, I just…” Lauren stammered. Libby almost looked angry, but when she reached forward and touched Lauren’s knee, her touch was only encouraging.
“Don’t waste the connection you have, Lauren. Seriously. Some people wait their whole lives to meet someone they can connect with on the level you two have. Give him a chance.” Libby’s tone softened, and Lauren found herself nodding in response, unable to form a verbal answer that would be deemed adequate.
“I’ll think about it, okay?” She sounded less sure of herself than she had before. Libby nodded back at her in response, an encouraging smile showing faintly on her lips.
“Just don’t think so long that you find out it’s too late, my friend.”
With that, Libby stood up and brushed some nonexistent dust from her jeans. After a moment, Lauren still hadn’t said anything, so Libby took the opportunity to speak again. “I’m going to be away a few days over the weekend. I’m hoping to be back for Monday’s class, but if something happens and I’m not, can you text me and let me know what I’ve missed?” Lauren gave a nod, but Libby was already grabbing the pen and paper from the chair beside Lauren and scribbling down her number. She set it back down and smiled again.
Lauren shook her head, smiling weakly. “No, Libby. Thank you.”
A few minutes after Libby left, Dean returned with two steaming cups of coffee. He gave Lauren a questioning glance as he handed a cup to her. He eased himself back into his seat and took a sip from his coffee.
Lauren didn’t give him a chance to ask questions. Instead, she said the only thing that was running through her mind at that moment.
“I’ll go out with you, Dean.”
Lauren couldn’t remember the last time she had dressed up for an occasion, let alone went so far as to curl her hair and apply make-up. She even called Libby to see if she would be willing to accompany her to the mall to buy something nice to wear. Libby had squealed with delight and was all too keen to let her borrow something of hers. In the half hour she’d been at Lauren’s dorm room with her, she had aided her in transforming herself from an everyday casual looking woman with a natural femininity into a sexy and confident socialite with smoky eyes and red lips. She slipped on a pair of black pumps Libby had brought along with her, surprised that everything fit so well.
“Do you even wear size seven shoes?” Lauren glanced toward Libby’s feet. She didn’t look like she would be able to squeeze into the shoes that were snug against the soles of Lauren’s feet.
“They were a friend’s. She left them at my house. Her loss, your gain. You look hot, Sarah.”
Lauren felt more attractive than she had in ages. For once, she felt like a true twenty-something with style instead of the easily overlooked wife who hid within the comfort of her own home back in Texas. She’d never even thought of owning black eyeliner or red lipstick before, and told Libby so.
“Be brave, Sarah,” Libby encouraged her just before she hugged her tightly. “Details. I want ’em all tomorrow,” she added in a whisper before she pulled back, grinned, and left. Lauren wondered if maybe Libby was more excited for this date than she was.
Lauren’s cell phone rang shrilly just as a knock sounded at the door, breaking her from her thoughts. That would be Dean. A quick glance at her phone revealed Nadine was calling. Lauren exhaled slowly and ignored the call, tucking the phone back into her purse. It was time to be brave, as Libby had directed. It was time to see what Sarah was really made of.
Could Sarah convince a younger, attractive, intelligent man to fall for her in just one date? The thought worried Lauren slightly, the unfairness of it all looming darkly over her thoughts, but the thoughts she knew Sarah would be having right now included only excited nervousness and a willingness to accept the challenge.
Tonight, she would see how well Sarah’s personality could fair against the strength and persistence of Dean’s. Tonight, Lauren would forget herself for a few hours and play out the scene as only Sarah could. Tonight, she wasn’t Lauren pretending to be like Sarah. Tonight, there was no denying it. ShewasSarah.
As Lauren opened the dormitory door and allowed him his first peek at her, his eyes had outlined the contours of her body hungrily, taking in the perfect fit of her three quarter length top with a deep V-neck and the black leather skirt that sat modestly above her knees. The black pumps had completed the outfit well, and it was obvious the extra two inches of height they gave her were accentuating the shapeliness of her bare legs, sparking pleasant surprise in Dean’s expression.
“You look fantastic,” he said, his gaze still set on her legs below the leather skirt. A satisfied sigh escaped Lauren’s throat as she grinned back at him, pleased that her and Libby’s efforts had proven worthwhile.
“You don’t look so bad yourself,” Lauren said as she took in his jeans and plaid shirt covering the white tee beneath it. His hair had been gelled to give it style. Casual, yet it was enough to make him stand out. The blue of his shirt brought out his eyes, and Lauren told him so.
“I’ve had women tell me they’re jealous of my eyelashes.” Dean chuckled as Lauren grabbed her purse, a small gold buckled clutch also borrowed from Libby to match her outfit, and turned back to him.
“Those women are right. I am jealous of your eyelashes,” she quipped, reaching out to run her fingertip gently across the edge of his eyelid. She heard his breath catch in his throat, and a wave of satisfaction flooded through her.
“The last thing you need to be is jealous of anyone else, Sarah. My God, have you seen yourself in the mirror? You’re stunning.” He reached out and touched her hand gently, still brushing lightly against his face, and their eyes met as the heat of his skin registered in her brain. She bit her lip in an attempt to steady her pulse, then pushed past him gently, allowing her hips and shoulders to brush against him as she passed.
Stay cool, Sarah, Lauren silently chanted.
“Let’s check out this band you’re so fond of, shall we?”
Lauren was perched atop a vibrant red vinyl stool in the corner of the dimly lit pub on campus, sipping a Cosmopolitan. Her eyes could have been fixed anywhere around her—the bright strobe lights of the stage, the long-haired members of the band that crooned huskily into microphones and played their instruments with passion and talent, or even at the laughing and mostly intoxicated crowd of college students around that sashayed and pushed their way from dance floor to bar and back again. Instead, she was watching one person. Dean sat with his stool pushed around to the other side of the table so they could talk over the loud music and boisterous commotion around them.
“You’re telling me, you didn’t always want to be a writer?” he was saying incredulously. “Unless you’re going to tell me you wanted to be a model, I don’t see how someone so talented and so beautiful could ever want to do something else.” Lauren leaned closer to him, her chin resting on the back of her hand. She’d had barely anything to drink since they left the dorm room, but already she was comfortable with Dean and quite taken by his insistent flattery and compliments.
“You’re too kind.” She smiled. “But it is true, it wasn’t until about ten years ago that I decided I needed to write. Before that, I was convinced I wanted to be a veterinarian, like my Dad was.”
“So what happened to change your mind?” Dean was leaning forward, his elbows on the table in front of him. The condensation from his half finished bottle of beer dripped slowly onto the cork coaster below it.
“My favorite dog had to be put down when I was fifteen. It crushed me.” She took a sip from the glass in front of her.
“Well, as sorry as I am to hear that, Sarah, the rest of the world thanks you for making the choice to write. You’ve got far too much talent and creative energy to let it go to waste.” Dean stared tentatively at her hand resting on the table. When she realized what he was probably debating, she casually slid her hand back off the table onto her lap.
“I don’t know about that. The sales of my first book weren’t stellar, by any means.” The moment the words were out of her mouth, she immediately regretted them. She struggled to remain composed and not give away the shock she felt at having slipped up. Sarah’s storyline included nothing about being a published author, and Lauren had meant to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the boundaries between their lives had blurred momentarily. She would have to be more careful.
“You have a published book? You didn’t tell me that.” His excitement made her smile. She was thankful for the dim lights as she tried to hide her dismay, while searching for an answer to solve this unexpected turn of events.
“You didn’t ask.”
“Tell me about it. What’s it called?” Dean had dug into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his cell. He must have had the intention of recording the title to search it out later.
Lauren decided to play it coyly. “I’m not telling you, Dean.” If she told him about it, he would see that she wasn’t at all who she said she was and the whole scenario would come crashing down around her.
Dean set his phone down. “Why not? Come on. Did you write under a pen name?”
“Of course. And I did it so that persistent, attractive men such as yourself can’t seek it out due to blatant nosiness.” She beamed at him, hoping her playfulness would steer him away from the topic at hand.
“Ever the mysterious one, huh?” Dean retorted.
“You’re persistent, I’m mysterious. Not the greatest combination, I suppose.”
“I disagree,” Dean replied. “You and I seem to get along quite well, if I do say so myself.”
She reached for her drink, stirring it with the straw mindlessly as she spoke. “Getting along and being a good combination isn’t necessarily the same thing.”
“No,” Dean agreed, “but it only takes the flicker of a flame to set off an explosion of fireworks.” He reached across the table for her hand, his touch electric as he halted her from the stirring motion. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel it between us, Sarah. We’ve got something here.”
The smoldering look he cast in her direction made Lauren fight to take a breath. The sound around them, the bustling movements, everything faded into the background as she identified the determination and intensity in his stare.
“What is it you feel?” The question toppled from her lips without thinking, her voice sounding smaller to her own ears. She couldn’t take her eyes from him.
Dean’s teeth shone brightly as he smiled, reaching up with his other hand to push aside the bottle of beer he hadn’t touched in over half an hour. “I feel strength and weakness at the same time. Simultaneous calm and frenzy. You’re a tidal wave of creativity that, in the moment it’s unleashed, overwhelms everything in its wake, yet, at the same time you hold the veil over yourself so tightly that the true mystery in your words is maintained. You’re complex from within, that much I can ascertain, yet so easy to want, to desire, Sarah. I don’t think you fully comprehend the allure you possess.”
“I…” She wasn’t sure what she was going to say, but her cell phone suddenly started to buzz on the table between them and she grabbed it hastily, tearing her hand from Dean’s grasp and her eyes from his intense stare. For the second time that day, Michael’s name glowed across the caller display screen in front of her. “I have to take this.” She looked up at Dean apologetically.
“I’ll get us each another drink. These are warm by now.” Dean eased himself off the pub stool and plucked the bottle and glass from their table. Lauren couldn’t read his expression as he disappeared into the crowd pushing up against the bar. She scrambled to answer the cell phone before it went to voice mail.
“Hey, Lauren. Whoa, where are you? It sounds like some party.” The edge in his voice quickly put her on the defensive.
“There was a live band at the pub on campus, so I thought I would check it out, that’s all.”
“I guess that’s not code for actually working on your novel, huh?”
Immediately, Lauren was annoyed. For the past few weeks, all she had done was sit tirelessly at her desk in front of a glowing computer screen and type, scratching notes in the notebook about storylines, plot points, and point of views. Every day, she dialed Michael’s cell phone, but only rarely did he pick up. For the most part, she had to await his call back. Now, the one and only time she had permitted herself to go anywhere but the class room or her dorm room, Michael was being catty about it.
“I’ve worked really hard since I got here, Michael. I deserve a break, too. We can’t all work all the time.” She knew he would take that as a dig in his direction, and she meant it that way. He may choose to work all day every day, but she wasn’t going to.
She heard him sigh over the loud music and the crowds of people. “I’m not fighting about this now, Lauren. Who’s with you?”
Lauren looked around her. “No one,” she replied. “I’m alone.” She justified her answer by realizing that, by technicality, it was true. Dean wasn’t there, he was at the bar. If Michael could be difficult, so could she.
“All right, call me later then.”
“Why, so I can talk to your voice mail?” She hadn’t meant to say it out loud, and she certainly had not meant to blurt it out in such a condescending tone.
“Then don’t call, Lauren,” Michael answered bluntly and the line went dead. He had hung up on her. She pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it in disbelief.
She turned to see Dean appear at the table. He was empty-handed. “Were you listening?” she asked.
Dean held up his hands in surrender. “I swear, I wasn’t. It’s your expression, you look like you’ve seen a ghost or something. Are you okay?”
Lauren shook her head in an attempt to make light of the call. “Yeah, of course. I thought you were getting drinks?”
“I will be in that line forever. If you really want another, I’ll go wait to get it, but I was thinking, maybe we could get out of here, go for a walk or something?” He phrased it as a question, giving Lauren an out if she wanted it.
Lauren glanced over the crowd and at the stage, where the musicians were gearing up to do a second set of songs. It was obvious from the rowdiness and spilled alcohol that the night was just getting started for most of the patrons. The phone call had put a damper on her mood and made her yearn for a little solitude.
“If I told you that I think I should just head home, would I ruin your night?” She bit her lip, then seeing his expression of uncertainty, she added, “I had a really great night, Dean, I swear.” She held up her phone as a way of explanation, “I just have a few things I didn’t realize had to be dealt with tonight.”
Dean leaned against the table and flashed a smile. “It’s fine, Sarah. You don’t have to explain yourself. I had a great night, too, though.”
Lauren arched an eyebrow at him speculatively. “You know I just had a conversation with someone and it didn’t go as planned, yet I don’t have to explain myself? Perhaps the combination of you and I isn’t such a bad idea after all.” She chuckled and slid to the floor. She heard her cell ding with an incoming text alert, but she chose to tuck it into the borrowed clutch and turn to Dean. He looked down at the bag in her hand containing the cell phone. He had heard the text alert as well.
“Are you going to ignore that?”
“It can wait.”
He nodded. “If you say it can, then it can. Come on, I’ll walk you home.” He held out a crooked arm in waiting. Lauren giggled, shaking her head in amusement as she slid her hand around his arm, holding onto the muscled bicep beneath his plaid shirt.
Shadows crept in lengthy stretches of darkness across the campus as Lauren and Dean strolled slowly toward the dormitory. Safety lights were placed sporadically across the campus grounds, but the moonlight seemed to be the main source of light tonight. The night was cool, but neither of them seemed to notice. Once again, he had effortlessly eased them into a conversation about the perks of having actually enjoyed studying poetry in high school.
“I mean, it’s not like it’s easy for a guy to go around saying he quite enjoys the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe, but I’m telling you, you get the right girl listening to you go on about the right poem, and suddenly the nerdy literature buff becomes the stud. It’s not a bad deal, really.”
Lauren laughed, brushing a lock of hair behind her shoulder. “I love Edgar Allan Poe. The man was a literary genius. Perhaps eccentric, but a genius nonetheless.”
“Wow, a Poe fan, I never would have guessed.”
Lauren cocked an eyebrow as they neared the building. She punched her entry code into the door, heard the click of the lock opening, and Dean pulled open the door for her. “Seriously? What did you take me for then? A fan of Hemingway? Something more modern?” She turned and awaited his response.
Instead of answering, he gave her a mischievous grin and leaned toward her. They were at the bottom of the stairs leading to the upper levels of the dormitory. One path would lead to the stairs, the other to the elevator. He put his hand against the wall beside her head, holding Lauren in place. She could feel the coolness of the wall behind her as he spoke, his voice low and husky.
“That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the most beautiful.” His grin widened as his eyes searched Lauren’s face for permission to draw closer. “And you are beautiful, Sarah.”
Poe. He had recited Poe to her in undoubtedly the most seductive voice she’d ever heard. Lauren could hear her heart pounding, blood rushing past her ears in waves. “Dean…” she managed to choke out, but the words came a moment too late. In an instant, his lips had found hers and were gently taking over the conversation. She felt his fingertips brush the bare skin of her forearm as she stood there, unable and not wanting to move away. His touch combined with the heat and intensity of his kiss caused Lauren to gasp quietly, just enough to make him pull away, once again searching her face for answers.
“You okay?” he whispered. Lauren’s face was flushed, she could feel it. The harsh fluorescent lighting of the stairwell didn’t help either, but she couldn’t seem to focus. Her mind was spinning in a thousand different directions. Finally, she nodded.
“I’m good.” A half smile formed on her lips as she stared up at him.
“Let’s get you home.” His voice was different now, deeper, and quieter. He reached down for her hand and led her toward the staircase. Lauren’s room was only on the second floor, so in the time they waited for the elevator, they could have already been at her door. Stairs, however, were trickier with pumps on, and Lauren used Dean’s hand to steady herself. Perhaps it wasn’t the pumps causing her mild case of dizziness, but it was easier for her to blame the shoes than to acknowledge their kiss in the stairwell.
An awkward tension fell between them. Lauren knew it was her fault. She’d said next to nothing since his lips left hers. At the foot of her dorm door, they stopped. Lauren didn’t see anyone in the hall, so she pretended to fidget with her keys to find the right one in hopes that Dean would speak first.
“I had a great time, Sarah,” he said. It could have been his expression of uncertainty, but suddenly Dean he seemed younger than Lauren initially thought.
“Me too, Dean. Thank you for being so persistent in inviting me out.”
Dean chuckled, shrugging. “I guess sometimes persistence truly can pay off. Thank you for allowing me to take you out.” Lauren unlocked her dorm door and took a step toward the threshold. Dean reached out and gently placed his hand on her side to stop her. She tilted her head up to meet his gaze, and his eyes had that look again, the smoldering intensity threatening to come undone. That look made Lauren wonder what it would be like to unleash that intensity and let it run wild with her own.
“Dean.” Her voice was as low as a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’ll see you in class on Monday, okay?” She held his gaze, and instantly wondered if he could see through her transparent words. His fingers remained on her side for a moment longer, then she watched as he reluctantly took a step away.
“Of course. You have a good night.” His smile was warm but he appeared defeated. Lauren felt a pang of guilt at rejecting him.
“You too, Dean.” She backed into the dorm room and dug into the clutch for her cell.
Lauren closed the door with a gentle click and, even though she wasn’t sure why, she dialed Michael’s cell number. Even if he didn’t want her to call, she had to lessen her guilt. The call didn’t ring but went straight to his voice mail.
Michael had turned his phone off.
A moment later, Lauren saw the text that had chimed in earlier at the bar. In bold letters was the short text from Libby.
Be brave, Sarah. He’s worth it.
She wasn’t sure when she made the decision, before or after slipping out of the pumps that pinched her feet and made it difficult to walk, or when she turned off her own cell phone. Either way, she pushed her thoughts and worries into the deepest depths of her mind as she realized selfishly, in that moment, that no one else mattered to her.
Before she knew it, she was pulling open the door and barreling into the hallway. Evidently, Dean had been of the same unsettled mindset. She crashed into his chest outside her door. She looked up at him, into his yearning eyes, and said the only thing she wanted to say in that moment.
The sunlight streamed blindingly through the open window of Lauren’s dorm room, and she squinted as her eyes struggled to adjust to the brightness. She reached beside her bed for her cell to check the time, but felt only the scratchy carpeting of the floor. Her eyes opened a bit more and suddenly a flood of awareness came over her. Her cell phone wasn’t where she always left it. The curtains weren’t drawn the way she usually kept them to prevent the invasion of the morning sunlight. Steady, rhythmic breathing could be heard close beside her. Seeing as Lauren was holding her own, she knew the breath was not hers.
Dean. My God, she thought to herself as a flurry of images from late last night bombarded her mind. The taste of urgency in his kiss, the fury of fingertips and tender touches as they stripped away any material that prevented their heated skin from touching, the tangled sheets that twisted and cocooned their bodies as they moved together in passionate unison. Lauren stifled the groan that yearned to escape from her mouth, an audible exclamation of shock and disbelief at her actions.
With as little movement as possible, she lifted her head from the pillow and peered out through tangled hair at her room. The lamp had been knocked to the floor, but thankfully it wasn’t broken. There were articles of clothing strewn carelessly across the floor and desk chair. Lauren’s laptop had been slid to the far corner of her desk, and she vividly remembered why. She would never be able to look at that desk the same way again.
The words struck Lauren’s ears loudly in the silence of the room. She squeezed her eyes shut, counted to three to regain her composure, and then turned to face Dean’s lopsided grin. His dark hair was no longer gelled to perfection. A messy bed-headed look remained. His eyes still carried the remnants of sleep.
“Hey,” Lauren whispered uneasily. She pulled the sheets up against her as she awkwardly sat up in bed. A twin-sized bed was confining enough for one person. Two made it extremely restrictive when trying to move without touching the other person at the same time.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know. I can’t find my phone.”
“Can’t imagine why.” The amusement in Dean’s voice made Lauren blush.
She turned away from him, searching for something to put on so she could get out of bed and put some distance between her and the heat she could still feel radiating from him. She caught sight of her cell phone on top of the dresser, splayed out with the rest of the contents of the clutch purse she’d been carrying the night before. She avoided Dean’s gaze as she pulled the blanket from the bed and wrapped it around her as quickly as she could, leaving him covered in only the sheet.
As Lauren made her way across the room and fidgeted to get her phone turned on, Dean sat up in bed, letting the sheet fall to his waist. Lauren made the mistake of letting her eyes flit upward from the phone screen to the sight of his bare abdomen, and immediately she felt a smoldering sense of wanting reverberate through her. A memory of that abdomen suspended above her as her fingers grazed along the edge of the tattoo between his shoulder blades made her let out a sigh before quickly returning her gaze to the phone in front of her. She had to focus, and not on Dean.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, his expression slowly turning into one of uncertainty.
“I’m just…I mean, I’m not sure…” She struggled with the words to express her feelings. Her rational side was screaming at her in frustration and anger over what she had done last night. A twinge of guilt and disbelief was etching itself into her mind, and she struggled with the knowledge that she had just been unfaithful to Michael. Never in a million years did she ever believe she was capable of doing such an unfair thing to him. However, she had done it within less than a month of being away from him and the home they’d built together.
And she’d enjoyed it. She didn’t feel nearly as guilty for it as she knew she should, and suddenly she wasn’t remotely sure how she should be reacting. Is this how wives who cheat on their husbands usually felt? There couldn’t possibly be this little remorse in doing such a heinous act. As Lauren looked up to meet Dean’s eyes, she knew why she was so separated from her emotions regarding last night. In her mind, she was already telling herself that Sarah had been the one to sleep with Dean.
His voice brought her out of her own thoughts and she immediately dropped her focus back to her phone. The phone began to buzz repeatedly, numerous texts and voice mail messages coming in now that the phone was turned on. Libby had wanted to know how last night went. The voice message was from Nadine’s number. She would check it later. It was the two texts and one voice mail from Michael that made her realize the magnitude of what she had done. Short and to the point, Michael’s words caused her guilt to grow.
I’m sorry, the first one said.I miss you, said the second.
“Sarah.” Dean’s voice was more demanding this time, and she raised her head to look at him. She set the phone back down on the dresser and stood there, just staring at him.
“It’s almost eight-thirty in the morning,” she said absently.
He gave a sigh and patted the bed beside him. “Come here.” When she didn’t move, he added, “Please.” Hesitantly, she sat back down on the bed beside him, not once loosening her hold on the blanket wrapped so tightly around her naked body. She gave him an apologetic look, waiting for him to speak.
“Why do I feel like we did something wrong?” he asked bluntly.
Lauren thought for a moment, unsure how to respond. “Maybe we did.”
“I’d have to say I disagree with you,” he replied bluntly, causing Lauren to arch an eyebrow at him. He seemed so sure, and she wondered how he could be. When she didn’t respond, Dean continued.
“You can’t tell me that last night was wrong, Sarah. You came down that hallway looking for me just as I was heading back to you. We wanted each other, and there’s no shame in that. Hell, I wanted you then and I still want you. You can say last night was a lot of things, but wrong isn’t one of them.”
She watched as his fingers crept slowly across the sheet and slid gently to her bare arm. Goosebumps raised along her skin as he touched her. When his fingers tightened around her forearm and gave her a soft tug toward him, she relented, letting her body lean into him. With her ear pressed against the heat of his chest, she could hear his heart beating rapidly. She was struck by the wave of satisfaction she felt at knowing his increased pulse rate was because of her.
Lauren brought her hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose, squeezing her eyes tightly shut as she struggled to explain herself.You’re not Sarah, she repeated shrilly in her mind, trying desperately to keep her focus and remember this was a mistake. The comfort she felt with his arms around her made her words all the more difficult to whisper.
“Even if it wasn’t wrong, Dean, it can’t happen again.”
“This can’t be it, Sarah.”
Lauren lifted her head from his chest and looked at him squarely. “You’re not like most other college guys, are you? From what I hear, you should be thrilled right now that I’m trying to let you off the hook. You know, no strings attached and all that?”
Dean leaned his head back, his forehead crinkling. “Well, I guess I’m not like most college guys then, if that’s what the criteria is.” He almost sounded annoyed that she would assume such a thing about him. “If I were like most of those eighteen-year-old punks in the front row of our class, then I certainly wouldn’t have sought out the most intelligent, most beautiful woman in the class. If sex was all I was after, I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t have remained so persistent. I’m about more than sex, and I’m pretty sure you are as well. That’s why we’re here right now.”
“How old are you?” Lauren asked while her mind fought to catch up in processing his statement and its meaning.
He was five years younger than she was. “Don’t you want to know how old I am?” Lauren asked.
“Not really. Besides, a gentleman never asks a lady her age.”
“That’s a smart man.”
“No, Sarah, that’s a real man.”
The room grew silent, but the challenging stares between them spoke volumes. He was fed up with Lauren trying to push him away, and she was tired of explaining the cons of their situation.
“Give me a chance here, Sarah.” His voice came out as a soft plea. She watched him run his hand through his tousled hair. Instantly, she had the urge to reach out and feel his hair once again beneath her fingertips.
“I will. I am, Dean. Just give me a little time though, okay?” She didn’t quite know what she was going to do with that time, but at least it would be something to work with.
“I can live with that.” He leaned forward and kissed her bare shoulder, staring up at her through his eyelashes. “Just don’t shut me out,” he whispered against her skin. A shiver of longing traveled up Lauren’s spine as his lips touched her skin in such a delicate manner.
“Damn those eyelashes of yours,” she muttered with a playful grin.
“I told you, don’t be jealous,” he chuckled, matching her playful tone. “You’re beautiful. You’re Sarah.”
Her extracurricular activities with Dean on Friday night put her behind in her writing by almost a full day. By the time she’d convinced him he had to leave on Saturday, it was close to the afternoon when she finally got her room straightened up again and sat down in front of her laptop with the intent of adding to her word count. Unfortunately, her mind was stuck on recounting her time with Dean. Instead of not writing, Lauren opened another blank document on her screen and began to write the scene of Sarah and her male love interest, Daniel, after weeks of subtle flirtatiousness and unwavering sexual tension, meeting in a small office together. There, they threw caution to the wind and finally gave in to their undeniable desire for each other.
The words came rapidly and consistently, and Lauren was convinced she could close her eyes and just allow her hands to deliver the story. With each word, she not only saw the written word itself but also the memory it represented, the fever and passion she recalled. The darkness of the room, lit only by the pale moon and city lights dancing below, the gasps and sounds of unabashed need and desire, the unbearable heat and ache that seemed almost intolerable and unquenchable. Lauren’s fingers flew across the keyboard, matching her increasing pulse rate.
She had taken her novel in an edgier direction than planned, but the more she contemplated its plot line, the more she liked it. While her first book had been published by a small company in Texas and only had moderate sales, she was convinced that, if she could pull off the plot line that was emerging, she might be able to take her writing career to the next level. She could write the book she longed to be known for, the book that mimicked real life to the point where the reader failed to see the boundary between reality and fiction. Her goal was to have a storyline that allowed that kind of absorption.
Monday’s class rolled around too soon for her liking.
“Where in the world have you been?” Libby hissed loudly into her ear, and Lauren stopped on her way down the central aisle.
“I thought you were going to be away today?” she asked. Three texts from Libby had come through on her phone over the weekend, and even though she hadn’t answered any of them because she wasn’t sure what she would say, she was sure one of them had mentioned Libby not being in class because she had to travel home for some reason.
“What? Are you kidding? And miss out on hearing the juicy details of your Friday night escapades with Dean? A team of wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from being here today.” Libby’s smile was wide as she rubbed her hands together, ready for Lauren to dish out the details.
Lauren rolled her eyes and gave her a sideways grin. “Please, you’re making me sound way more interesting than I am. There is very little to tell.” She finished walking down the remaining few stairs and side-stepped into the fourth row, Libby following closely behind her. “And if you don’t mind, I’d rather you kept it down, okay? Not everyone needs to hear our conversation.” Lauren cast a glance back at her to make sure she understood.
“So thereissomething you want to keep hush-hush!” Libby plopped down in the seat beside her, stamping her feet in delight. “I knew it. I knew it the moment you didn’t return my first text. Tell me, your place or his?” Libby bit her lip in a gesture to stifle her excitement. Two girls in the row in front of Lauren turned around to glance questioningly at her. They’d undoubtedly overheard. Lauren gave Libby a warning glance, and she held up her hands in mock surrender, mouthing, “Sorry,” after the two girls turned back around.
“There is nothing to tell, Libby.”
Libby pretended to cough, muttering, “Liar,” as she did so. One thing was for certain, she was enjoying herself.
“We had drinks at the campus pub. We listened to a live band. End of story.” Lauren’s voice came out in a loud whisper. She pulled her notebook and printed pages of her latest assignment from her bag, focusing on it more than she needed to.
Anthony had been especially excited to deliver the instructions for their assignment on Friday, a modern interpretation of any classic or historical piece of literature his students wished to cover. Lauren had been so sure that most of the class would choose to modernize the love story of Romeo and Juliet that she had chosen to use the premise of The Telltale Heart instead. Anyone who was anyone knew that story, and she honestly believed Edgar Allan Poe deserved a spot in each and every assignment she did if she could manage it. However, she wasn’t sure she’d ever hear Poe’s words the same way again now that she’d heard his poetic prose uttered from the lips of a man about to kiss her feverishly.
“End of story? You mean, that’s really all you’re going to tell me?” Libby pretended to pout. All of a sudden her eyes lit up as she looked past Lauren. That expression could only mean one thing.
“Good morning, ladies,” Dean said, his voice calm.
Lauren turned to meet his gaze. He held out a steaming cup of coffee.
“Dark roast. Just the way you like it, Sarah.”
He seemed so pleased with himself that Lauren had to fight the urge to pretend itwasn’thow she liked it at all. However, she could smell the distinct enticing aroma and it made her body ache with the need for a strong caffeine fix. She flashed him a grin, content to let him believe he knew her well.
“Thank you, Dean.” As she took the cup, she realized he was also passing her a small slip of paper pressed against it. His eyes met hers for a moment, letting her know he meant for her to read it when she was alone.
“You’ll be sitting with us?” Lauren asked in an attempt to sound composed.
“Nah.” Dean ducked his head toward the other side of the room where empty seats remained in the third row. “I’ll be taking in the lecture from over there. Fewer distractions.”
Lauren didn’t even bother to look in Libby’s direction. She knew she would be bursting at the seams with gossip-hungry delight. Besides, she could tell from Dean’s expression that he was enjoying both her and Libby’s reactions. Her eyes were narrowed, lips pursed tightly as she watched him slipping deep into thought.
“Have a good day, ladies.” Dean gave her one last smug grin and turned to make his way across the room. Lauren watched him, putting off having to turn and see the amusement on Libby’s face.
“Nothing to tell, huh?” Libby whispered emphatically.
Thankfully, Anthony showed up and prevented her from having to answer. While Libby dug for her assignment in her bag, Lauren pretended to dig through hers on the other side of her chair, setting the cup of coffee on the floor while she unfolded the small piece of paper Dean had given her. On it, his calligraphy-like writing boasted the words:
We haven’t spoken since Saturday. You can’t avoid me forever. Meet me at the cafe or I’m coming over to your place tonight. Your choice.
Almost as an afterthought, one more word was scrawled at the bottom:
Lauren tucked the paper into her bag and cast a glance in his direction. Not surprisingly, he was watching her. He arched an eyebrow in her direction as a way of questioning.Well?
If she had to choose, she would rather face him in a public place. That way, there’d be no chance of her giving in to how much she wanted him. She answered him by picking her coffee back up from the floor and tilting it toward him, nodding slightly as she sat back up straight.
It looked as though she was going to have plenty of opportunity to become an all-day coffee drinker.