Authors: Martin, Lex
Dearest Clementine Copyright © 2014 by Lex Martin
All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced or transmitted in any capacity without written permission by the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
This New Adult contemporary romance is recommended for readers 18+ due to mature content.
Copy Editing by RJ Locksley
Cover Design & Photo by © Lex Martin
Table of Contents
Other Novels by Lex Martin
About the Author
To Matt & my little bears.
You are my happily ever after.
"It is never too late to be what you might have been."
- George Eliot
My pen traces mindless circles in the margins of my journal as I stare out the window of the dusty common room.
This is what I’ve needed to find my footing, I think as I fight the nerves taking root in my stomach.
Down the hallway, the sound of squeaky wheels is punctuated by a groan and a thump as luggage hits the floor.
“Wait, what will happen if there’s a fire? We’re on the eighteenth floor,” one girl says, her vowels long and polite. A Southerner.
A deep male voice reassures her. “I know it’s a hike down those stairs, but don’t use the elevators. The last thing you want is to get stuck between floors. I’ll check each room to make sure you’ve evacuated.”
I can’t make out the rest of the conversation until two girls shuffle by the lounge.
“Holy shit. Our RA is hot!” a girl in a sundress tells her friend as she lugs an overstuffed duffle bag. “I wonder if he has a girlfriend.”
“He’s a senior or a grad student, dork. He’s not going to be interested inyou,” the other one says, her accent softening her words.
Hitting on the resident assistant, the upperclassman paid to keep an eye on all of the kids in the dorms, was never my thing. My RA freshman year, Tao, was five two and into Jesus. Not my scene.
I can’t imagine who would want to be an RA. Tao was always rushing some poor slob to the hospital with random broken bits. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he found my friend Sarah passed out, piss-drunk, with a broken ankle. How she managed to vomit on all four walls of her dorm room before she went down is beyond me.
Tapping my pen, I shift in my seat.
I’ve spent the last three months trying to get in the zone, grappling with ideas, but I only ended up with a journal full of manic-looking drawings.
This has to fucking work.
I breathe deeply, the smell of stale Cheetos assaulting my nose.
If I can get into a writing routine again, I can do this. I’ve done it before.
I keep telling myself the same crap, hoping something clicks. All summer, I’ve tried to be positive, and trust me, that’s no easy feat.
My knee starts to jiggle, and just as I’m about to go into full-out crisis mode, a voice startles me.
“Darlin’, nowyoudon’t look like a freshman.”
Turning slightly, I see him in my peripheral vision, leaning in the doorway. The RA.
“That’s because I’m not,” I say flatly.
“So what are you doing in Warren Towers? I mean, why would you willingly hang out here? I get paid to be here. What’s your excuse?”
He’s joking. I get it. But I’m not in the mood.
“Just looking for some white noise,” I say, returning to my journal. I feel his eyes on me, and my face starts to heat. “Look, I’m not some creeper if that’s what you’re getting at. I just need a little inspiration.”
I jot down random words, hoping something can pull me out of my writing coma: suitcases, hot RAs, condoms, diet Coke, donuts.
Trying to ignore the intensity of his stare, I gaze out the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I’ve always loved this view. Boston is alive with color, rich with the burnt sienna of brownstones that bake in the August sun. Walls of ivy ripple in the breeze off the Charles River, making me wish I could go for a run.
Nostalgia tugs at me as I think about how much has happened since I lived here freshman year. I got the idea for my book in this very seat three years ago. And I’m hoping like hell I can do it again.
A quick glance at the clock feels like a punch to the gut. At this rate, I’m never going to figure out my next book if I can’t get in the zone. And Ihaveto get in the zone. No one will pay my bills if I don’t, and Boston University doesn’t exactly have a soft spot for poor little rich girls. Because on paper, I’m silver-spoon-up-my-bum wealthy, the daughter of two Fortune 500 assholes. Unfortunately, my parents never got the memo they’re supposed to give a shit about my life.
Who knows what I did to piss them off? It’s immaterial at this point. The bottom line is I need money.Pronto.
I have one thing on my side. On a good day, if the stars align and the fates agree, I can write my ass off. Which helped at the end of my freshman year when I received the letter from the bursar’s office noting that I owed a cool twenty grand.
It’s ironic that my novel, which highlighted one of the most humiliating moments of my life, helped pay that bill.
I haven’t been able to write anything on par withSay It Isn’t So,my one and only book, the lucky ticket that bailed me out of debt. But I guess I haven’t had to. What started off as maudlin ramblings in my diary that I shaped into a narrative somehow jumped up the charts and became an indie bestseller.
The RA clears his throat, pulling me from my thoughts. “And you thought you’d find inspiration here, a freshman dorm?”
I don’t have to look up to know he’s grinning.
How the hell do you hear someone smile?my inner voice quips.
He chuckles. “Are you having any luck? Finding inspiration?”
Finally, my eyes sweep up, and my stomach instantly lurches. He’s tall with dark, shaggy hair that flops in his face. Intense green eyes stare back.The girls were right. Heisgood-looking.He smiles a dazzling, megawatt grin, and my chest clenches at the thought that he probably has lickable abs.
Oh, for the love of God, Clem, get a grip.
I bite my lower lip until it stings, and my eyes dart back to my journal.
“No,” I say, wishing I had more time to write. “No luck with inspiration.”
My jaw clenches as my pen returns to drawing circles. Ignoring the hammering of my heart that I hope has everything to do with my looming tuition bill and nothing to do with Henry Cavill’s doppelgänger, I flip through the pages in front of me, desperate to find something that will help me get my shit together.
He shifts in the doorway.
“I’m Gavin, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say half-heartedly. My body, on autopilot, starts to pack my stuff even though it’s too early.
Shit. Fuck-it-all-to-hell shit!You can’t go. You don’t have anything figured out yet!
“And… you… would… be?”
“Leaving.” My inner voice sighs at me.Always such a bitch, Clem.
“Yeah, that’s not what I meant.” He sounds amused.
I swing my messenger bag over my shoulder.
“I know what you meant,” I say, glancing up as he blocks my exit.
He’s taller than I thought… and built…
The fact that my heart beats even faster the second I smell his citrusy cologne pisses me off. I pride myself on being a modern girl, one who doesn’t need a man, especially if all he’ll do is break my heart. So the idea that this guy and his little smirk give me kamikaze butterflies aggravates me more.
I let out an exasperated sigh as I wait for him to move out of the way, my eyes traveling along his bulging bicep, which strains against his t-shirt.
Stop. Checking. Him. Out.
I shake my head at myself as I scoot around him and head for the elevator. I press the button and wait all of three seconds before I punch it again.
“You know, you’re on the eighteenth floor. This could take a while,” he says behind me. “I’m guessing you probably have more than enough time to tell me your name.” He chuckles again, apparently undeterred by my fuck-off vibe.
This doesn’t mean anything. Just because you didn’t get an idea today doesn’t mean anything.
Nerves jumble my stomach, and I half consider taking the stairs when the elevator doors slide open and relief floods my chest.I don’t know why I have to get away from here right now, but I do.
I get in and turn around. Obnoxiously sexy RA guy is leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his broad chest, watching me. Our eyes meet, and he raises his eyebrows.
As the doors start to close, I feel a twinge of guilt.
“Clem. My name is Clementine.”
The doors close, but not before I catch him grin.
* * *
The musty smell of our apartment building blasts me in the face as I trudge up the stairs. Everyone is standing around the wagon-wheel coffee table, and Jenna hovers protectively in front of her garage-sale find with her hands on her hips. Her shoulder-length blonde hair is pulled up in a spiky ponytail and she has a smudge of dirt across her cheek.
“Clem, help me out here,” she says in her sweetest South Carolinian drawl. “Do you think this is hideous? Because I don’t. I think it has personality.”
Harper is standing next to Jenna silently begging me to side with her. She removes her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose before she swats at a loose strand of dark auburn hair dangling in her face. I’m lucky to have her as my in-house shrink. Her father is a world-renowned psychiatrist, and she’ll be one too someday.
I’ve been roommates with Harper since second semester of our freshman year after neither of us could stand living with our original roommates in Warren Towers. That’s when we got matched up with Jenna, who’s a creative writing major like me. By some fluke sophomore year, our little trio ended up in a coveted apartment on Bay State Road, which rocks the most amazing brownstones. We’ve been living together ever since.
Aside from Harper and Jenna, people here don’t know me, the real me. They don’t know I stand to inherit a shit-ton of money. Between the trust fund and the holdings from my grandfather, the amount is staggering. But I don’t like how people look at me when they think I’m some trust-fund baby.
Besides, the money isn’t mine, so I don’t want it. Especially if it means groveling to my mother. Because that will never fucking happen.
Harper clears her throat to catch my attention, and I remember that I’m supposed to be the enforcer.
“Jenna, we don’t have much room in our new place,” I say, hoping to let her down easily. “Our common area is pretty small this year.”
I don’t tell her that we’ve wanted to burn her table all summer.
“Babe,” Jenna’s boyfriend Ryan says with a look of resignation, “why don’t I take it for now? I’ll put it in my garage, and you can get it next summer.” As much shit as I give him, deep down he’s a great guy. “Besides, we’ve made some good memories on it.” He waggles his eyebrows at her, and I have a deep desire to hurl.
“Gross!” Harper yells. “Why can’t you two limit your sexual activity to the bedroom like normal people?”
“I can’t help it if I have a hot girlfriend.” Ryan leans over and kisses Jenna, and she giggles like a love-struck teenager.
Fortunately, the buzzer rings, which gets him bounding over boxes and out the door to pay the pizza guy. After scrounging around for some paper plates, we congregate on the bare floor in the living room.
By the time we’re done eating and the food coma starts to set in, the task of moving all of our crap to our new place on campus seems daunting.
A weary Harper holds up her cup of soda. “Here’s to our senior year.” We all raise our drinks. “To Ryan, may he sell out all of his concerts.” He winks, his stage swagger evident in the upward tilt of his chin. “To Jenna, may she be just as pleased in the bedroom but less vocal.” Jenna shoots her the finger but laughs. Harper turns to me and grins. “To Clem, may she write another bestselling book.”
Her words send twin pangs of hope and fear through me as I pray that I can finally break my dry spell and do it again.
Ryan tips his cup toward me. “You ever gonna let me read that book of yours?”
That’s an easy answer.
“I’m thinking no.” I arch an eyebrow at him, and he feigns disappointment. Yeah, like he really wants to read my Young Adult chick book.
Jenna interrupts to finish our toast. “And here’s to Harper, may she be wrong about all of my Freudian slips!”
Laughing, we clink our cups.
Jenna pauses mid-toast to wave her hands, sloshing soda all over the floor. “Don’t forget that Ryan’s show is tomorrow night at Euphoria.” Jenna is the ultimate groupie, standing in the front row to eye-fuck her boyfriend, who’s the lead singer of Tragic Paradox. “They got a new guitarist, and he’s really amazing.”
She leans over to kiss Ryan, which goes from a sweet peck on the mouth to something more, eliciting groans from Harper and me.
As Ryan starts to pull away from the kiss, he cops a feel.
“Are you always such a pervert?” I ask, giving him what I consider a withering eat-shit look, one that only makes him smirk. The fact that he just grabbed Jenna’s breast doesn’t faze her at all. Public groping is something she has gotten used to, like getting frisked by the TSA.
He’s still looking at me with a big, stupid smile. I shake my head. “You’re immune to my powers, huh?”
“Guess so.” He shrugs.
“I never could scare you.”
“No, but you scare the shit outta all my friends.” He scruffs my hair like I’m a kid, which has me seriously thinking about punching him in the kidney. “Why you so mean, Clementine?”
I lean back and shrug. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay the fuck out of the kitchen.”
“You just need a worthy adversary.” He has that look in his eye. This guy never gets the message.
“No, and don’t go trying to set me up with one of your sorry-ass friends.”
He cocks an eyebrow. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a lesbian?” Before I can scoff, he raises his hands defensively. “Because it’s okay if you are. I won’t judge you, and seriously, that would be pretty hot.”
“Fuck off, Ryan.”
“I think you’d be less tense if you had sex, maybe just once.”
“Who says I haven’t?”
It always goes here. I catch Harper’s eye, and she makes a face. She knows how much I hate this.
“Clem can’t help that most men don’t meet her standards,” Jenna says as she clears away our paper plates.
“Thank you.” It’s not like I’ve never dated. I merely gave up trying to find someone who wasn’t a shithead. Or a cheater. Or a stalker. Yeah, guys suck.
Ryan frowns. “I’ve been with Jenna for a while, and you’ve never had a boyfriend in all of this time. That’s fucked up. All my friends are dying for a shot with you, and I like to think that pairing you off with someone is good for the gene pool.”
He’s ridiculous. There’s nothing special about my genes. I’m a little on the short side with long, blondish-brown hair and blue eyes. People say Jenna and I could pass for sisters, but where her hair is silky and smooth, mine is longer and wavier. If I wanted to look as good as Jenna does when she rolls out of bed, I’d have to spend half the day under a blow dryer. No thanks.
The biggest thing I have going for me is that I love running and rock climbing, so at least all of my parts will stay in place for a while.
Ryan points at me with a sly grin.
“The fact that you never date must mean you kind of hate men, right? Well, except for me.”
He makes a puppy-dog face, and Jenna coos at him.Good lord.
“I don’t hate men. I hatepredictablemen.” I’m not sure what’s gotten into Ryan tonight. He knows better than to mess with me.
“You should come with a warning label, girl,” Ryan jokes. “Mishandling could result in injury or death.”
“Yeah, let’s start with yours,” I say as I mock-punch him in the stomach.
* * *
Bay State Road is lush with maple trees and ivy, the perfect setting for a postcard to send home. That’s if I sent postcards home.
Exactly one block from the heart of Boston University is our brownstone for the year. Although I’m exhausted and the street is crawling with students and double-parked with cars, standing here looking at our new place has me practically bouncing on my toes with excitement.
Harper, Jenna and I bound up the stairs and throw open the door to our new place.
“Let’s figure out where everyone goes.” Harper has her no-nonsense face on.
Our apartment, which is at the top of a four-story walk-up, has a little more space than the other suites in the building, but it’s still a glorified dorm.
In the front is a small common area, which is lined with two single-occupancy rooms and one double. I eye the bathroom. Four girls sharing one bathroom is never fun.
“Dani is rooming with me,” Jenna says, “so the double in the front is mine.”
She stays with Ryan most of the time anyway, so she doesn’t really need privacy.
I’m glad I’m not the one stuck with the new girl. That’s the drawback of living on campus. Even though it’s convenient, the lottery system doesn’t care that we wanted to live as a trio and randomly assigned us a suite that housed four students. We then could wait to get assigned some random person or scramble to find someone ourselves. Jenna swears we’ll love Dani, but I’m reserving judgment because you can never be too cautious. Especially in my position.
I try to live under the radar because the press would love to splash my family’s name across the tabloids. It’s happened with my twin brother Jackson a few times, but Jax relishes the limelight because it means he can get laid whenever he wants.
But I make it my mission to live a quiet life, even if it is a little boring at times. Because Lord knows I’ve seen enough drama.
Quiet is how I like it, so I used a pen name when I published my book—because there is no way I can lay claim to the fiasco that inspired that novel.
Harper looks to me, and I shrug. I’ve paid for a single, and although that’ll be a stretch for me financially, I can’t write while someone is watchingGleein the background.
“You can take whichever room you want. As long as I don’t have to live with Eva Richardson ever again,” I say as Harper laughs.
My freshman year roommate Eva, a snarky sorority girl, made my life hell, but she’s also the reason I ended up with Harper later that year.
Footsteps echo along the hardwood floors, and we turn to find Ryan groaning.
“Fuck. You girls couldn’t get a room on the first or second floor?” When he reaches the top of the stairs, he heaves the boxes to get a better grasp.
“Drinks and dinner are on us tomorrow night,” I say, grabbing the top box out of his hands. “Besides, this is the price you pay to date one of the most gorgeous girls on campus. You get to be our grunt on moving day. Man up, buddy.”
He sighs, then nods. “You’re right.”
Okay, so maybeallguys don’t suck.
The next day I’m sore from moving, like I’ve been dropkicked by a medium-sized farm animal, which is why I’m not excited to go to work. I’m one of the assistant managers at the campus bookstore, a coveted position among students as it gets you discounts on books, clothes, and, most importantly, coffee. My store is three stories high, takes up half a city block, and has everything from a Barnes & Noble and Starbucks to dorm room essentials and apparel. Eager parents can outfit their kid’s crappy room, pay out the ass for textbooks, and top it off with a goofy coffee mug for grandma.
I love my job. Most days. It keeps my head busy, preventing me from crawling into a cave, which is always my go-to response when I’m stressed. But this is the busiest time of the year.
With school starting in a few days, I have to deal with the overflowing storage room, but I need the money because I’ll be damned if I’ll call my parents for help, so I caffeinate with a double latte, preparing myself for the work ahead of me.
Selling my book has gotten me pretty far, but attending one of the most expensive schools in the country, which is located in one of the most expensive cities in the country, has been tough financially. My parents pay for my brother’s tuition, but at least he’s down the road at Boston College, so I don’t have to see daily reminders of his preferred status in our family.
I type a quick text apologizing to Jenna for needing to skip out on Ryan’s show, and I promise to pitch in some cash to buy the guy a few drinks to thank him for moving us.
Jenna writes back:I understand even though you’re a whore. Wish you were coming tonight! Wanted you to meet Murphy, the new guitarist. Very cute.
Laughing, I respond:Stop trying to set me up!
Jenna:Your vagina is going to close up, and you’ll need surgical assistance to use it again.
Me:Don’t worry. I have insurance. And battery-operated accessories that don’t cheat on me or stalk me. Can’t beat that!
Okay, I don’t have insurance. Or a vibrator, and I feel a tad guilty for lying, but Jenna doesn’t totally get why I don’t like to date, and I don’t have the energy to have that conversation. Again.
Jenna:Fine. I’ll let you off tonight on ONE condition.
Jenna:I get full license to plan your bday next weekend. CARTE BLANCHE!
Me:You drive a hard bargain. If I say no?
Jenna:You have 10 minutes to get your ass here for the show.
Me:You’re a slut. Fine. Bday it is.
Jenna:Love you! Don’t work too late.
Shaking my head, I tuck my phone away and get down to business. When I finish dealing with the inventory, it’s after midnight. Kenmore Square is bustling with hordes of students headed to Lansdowne Street, which houses a dozen bars, but when I turn down Bay State Road, the block leading to my building is dark. Two street lamps are out, and I can’t help but quicken my pace until I reach my door.
I’m relieved to see Harper curled up on the couch talking on the phone when I walk in.
“Are you the only one here?” I ask as she hangs up.
“Yeah, Jenna went back home with Ryan because you know how they get after shows,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Dani went out to eat with her friends.”
Grabbing the corner of her blanket, I tuck myself in next to her, and we stare at the muted television. At some point, we’re going to have to deal with the boxes that are still stacked along the walls, but I’m too tired to consider it. Now that I’m sitting, my legs are numb, and exhaustion starts to spread through the rest of my limbs.
“How was tonight?” I ask.
“The band was great, but Kade the giant dickhead wouldn’t stop hitting on me.”
Kade is the band’s drummer. He’s the son of some politician, and he’s used to getting his way. Guys like him with money and power and no fear of society’s parameters are dangerous, something I’ve learned the hard way.
“I don’t care how scrumptious I look. The next time he puts his hands on my ass will be his last.”
Harper doesn’t have Jenna’s overt beauty, but she’s striking in her own way, and she’s one of the few people I know who’s comfortable in her own skin. Plus, she’s a psych major and doesn’t mind digging around in my brain until I stop with the crazy.
“That guy is such a douche. I don’t know why Ryan is friends with him.”
She straightens in her seat. “But the new guitarist is a sweetheart. And so cute!”
“That’s what I hear.” I haven’t met this guy yet, but he already has Harper’s attention. That says something. “You gonna dump your boy toy for him?”
“You know it!”
* * *
I. Am. Such. An. Idiot.
Reaching into my bag, I pull out my class list. I shoved it in there in May, and quickly forgot about it. I scan my classes: Greek & Roman Myth in Literature, Psychology, Romance Novel-Writing, and Applied Math.
I held off three years to do two things: take my one math requirement—because I’m mathematically challenged—and enroll in what I anticipated would be my favorite writing course, Young Adult Novel-Writing with Professor Golding. She was out on maternity leave last spring and isn’t teaching the course second semester, so this fall is the only chance I have to take it with her. I hoped the class could help me cultivate ideas to write my book.
My stomach plummets as I read the list again.
Being the genius that I am, I’m only now realizing I accidentally signed up for Romance Writing.
Visions of Professor Golding taking me under her wing quickly vanish. The odds of her class having any room for one more student is about as good as finding a street in Boston that doesn’t have a pothole.
Young Adult Writing is taught by one other professor, and I placed a restraining order on him freshman year, so hell would have to freeze the fuck over before I’d consider taking another one of his classes.
I had all summer, all damn summer, to figure this out, but I didn’t think to look at my class list, other than a cursory glance, to make sure it was correct. I must have seen the “novel writing” part and thought I was set. Shit.
It takes staring at my registration sheet and the online catalogue of classes for ten unblinking minutes to realize that the course numbers for Young Adult and Romance Writing are nearly identical. But the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend is not the time to figure this out because there is nothing I can do until classes start.
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, I’m in need of alcohol. Shots. Maybe tequila. I’m not a drinker, but the sight of students standing in a packed classroom trying to get into Golding’s YA course has me feeling defeated. I double-check her office hours and decide to see her after class and head off to Romance Writing.
I roll my eyes. I hate romance novels.
I’m so screwed.
* * *
I’m ten minutes late, but at least I make it. I scurry in, ducking as though that might make me invisible, and sink into one of the last open seats. The room is huge and almost overflowing, which is strange considering only creative writing majors should be in here.
Professor Marceaux is strolling the front of the class, clucking her tongue as she surveys us. Before I get a chance to look at the syllabus, she calls on a student who has her hand up.
“So what’s the difference betweenFifty Shadesof Greyand romance?” a girl in the front row asks.
From the sudden chatter that erupts, I get the impression this is on everyone’s mind. Am I the only person who hasn’t readFifty Shades?
Marceaux pauses mid-step. “Excellent question. First and foremost, Ana, the main character inFifty Shades, is considering whether or not she wants to be Christian’s submissive, so the whole story revolves around this sexual conflict, which places it firmly within the erotica genre. Let’s also consider diction. In romance, we say making love or maybe having sex. For my taste, we won’t sayfucking,” she says, making the whole class laugh as she wags her eyebrows.
Oh, Jesus.Do we have to talk about sex?Can’t romance be about unrequited love and angsty looks? Maybe a little drunk fondling in the coat closet?
The professor has a thick French accent, and as she struts across the front of the room, she pushes her tortoise-shell frames up to the top of her head. She clucks again. “Along those lines, I wouldn’t write penis or clitoris. You will need to make up some fun euphemisms for those words.”
Students start muttering and a few girls giggle.
Why the hell do I need a fun euphemism for the word penis? I never plan to write that word. Ever.
I feel ill.
A guy sitting next to me nudges my elbow.
“I could help you out with that,” he whispers, smirking. “You know, with the euphemisms.”
“Go to hell, jackass.” It only takes a minute to pack my bag before I storm out of the room. The professor mumbles something as the door swings shut behind me and laughter erupts a second later.
When I get home, my head is pounding. In the late afternoon, when Jenna walks in, her eyes bug out when she sees me.
“Holy Christ, Clem, what was up with you in class today?”
“What class?” I pull one leg up underneath me and sink deeper into the bench seat by the bay window.
“Romance. You didn’t see me waving wildly to you from the other side of the room?” Her arms flail around as though I need a demonstration.
“Oh my God, are you taking that too?”
“Yeah! Why did you run out?”
“Are you kidding? I’m not taking a sex-writing class.”
She frowns. “That’s not what it is. You missed the rest of the professor’s explanation. She said in romance, the sex comes secondary to love. Sex might be part of it, but it’s really about the bigger story of growth.”
I drop my head into my hands and rub my throbbing temples.
“What happened to that Young Adult class you were dying to take?” she asks as she shuffles through the room.
Groaning, I close my eyes. “I made a mistake when I registered for classes last spring and accidentally selected Romance.”
“Bummer.” She pours a cup of coffee and settles next to me in the window nook.
I crack open my eyes and glance up at her. “Jenna, I’m not the kind of person who comes up with fun euphemisms for body parts. That’s just not me.”
“Well, maybe this is a sign, y’know, to try new things and be bold.”
It’s my turn to frown. Bitchy I can do, but I’m not sure about bold. The last time I did something truly bold was freshman year, and what resulted still scares the shit out of me.
Maybe that’s why I still can’t write.
Jenna elbows me, trying to coax a smile. “Cheer up. I’m cooking up something really fun for your birthday this weekend.”
“Fine. As long as it doesn’t involve euphemisms for the word penis, I’m game.”
Disappointment sags her face. “Well, that’s no fun.”
Maybe not, but it’s safe.
I have no idea for my book and no YA class. I keep waiting for more bad news because crappy things always seem to happen in threes.
I begged Professor Golding to let me take her class, but she merely handed me the waiting list, which was two pages long, so I swallowed my pride and apologized to Professor Marceaux for bolting from her lecture. I told her I had a sudden emergency and left out the fact that I had nearly died when she said clitoris.
Which now has me thinking of euphemisms for the word clitoris. Like nubbin, bean, bud, button.
Oh my God.
An unwanted image comes to mind.He reaches between her delicate thighs and strokes her throbbing nubbin.
Jesus. Someone shoot me if I ever write that in a book.
Accepting that I’ll be taking a freaking romance-writing class this fall means a trip to the bookstore. I duck in, hoping to make it out before I get harangued into working, but when I get to the counter, out of the corner of my eye, I seehim. Fucker-from-hell.
A drum beats fast in my chest, echoing through my body. Barely able to catch my breath, I do the first thing that comes to mind and dive under the register.
I don’t think he saw me.Please. Go. Away.
The girl manning the register returns from her break. Her shoes bounce in front of me two seconds before her big brown eyes are in my face. One of her eyebrows quirks up as she tries to understand why her boss is hiding under the counter. I hear Jason Wheeler, my freshman-year writing professor, talking on the other side of this counter.
I whisper, “Becca, if you call attention to me, I will crack your femur with my teeth.”
She stares a moment, her other eyebrow rising to meet the first, before she backs up and straightens so that I only see her feet again.
“Hi, Professor Wheeler. Is that all for today?” God, she’s chipper.
“Yes, thank you, love.” Hearing his voice, all smooth and velvety and full of shit, makes me want to vomit. Or kick him in the balls. Or kick him in the balls and then vomit.
The register beeps as Becca scans Wheeler’s items.
“Do I know you, dear?” he asks.Here we go.
Becca giggles. “I had you for British Literature a few years ago. I’m surprised you remember.”
“You’re too lovely to forget.”Hurl.“Are you an English major?” She must nod because he says, “Excellent.”
“How was your summer?” she asks, shifting back and forth on her feet.
“I spent it in London. It was wonderful. I just got back a couple of days ago.”
Becca laughs in that innocuous way people do when there is nothing funny.
Wheeler mumbles something I can’t quite hear before he says, “Come see me if you ever need help with anything. I’d be more than happy to assist you.”What a skeaze.
I’ve known he was returning to teach here this fall, but nothing has prepared me to see him. When I look down, I’m rubbing my wrist. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths to regain some composure, and when I open them, Becca is crouching in front of me again.
“He’s gone, although I don’t know why you’d want to avoid him. He’s gorgeous! I had the biggest crush on him freshman year.”
“Sorry I threatened to crush your femur.” Not that I actually intended to wrap my jaw around her thigh. “He and I have some bad history.”
Her mouth puckers. “Oh, he gave you a bad grade, huh?”
“Something like that.”No, nothing like that.Once my paralysis wears off, I shake my head. “Becca?”
She ducks down to look at me again.
“It wasn’t because of a bad grade.” I swallow, trying to ignore the lump in my throat. “He’s a bad guy. He’s… dangerous.” I want to tell her more—I want to tell her to stay away from him—but the words don’t come.
She looks at me as though I’m speaking a foreign language. A couple of girls approach the counter, their chatter breaking the uncomfortable silence.
Becca glances up at them quickly and then back down to me. “I don’t know what to do with that, but okay.”
Before I get a chance to explain why I’m acting like a lunatic, one of the customers asks her where to find a bedside TV remote caddy, and Becca saunters off to find the item.
I’m not sure how long I sit there trying to steady my breathing or my trembling hands. The recurring sound of an incoming text finally draws my attention:Don’t forget the Saran Wrap!
Jenna’s message reminding me of an errand I need to make is the icing on my fucked-up day.
I wait ten more minutes to be sure Wheeler is gone before I take off, but with each step, a headache pounds behind my eyes. I should go to the gym, which will help with the tension, but first I have to fill the fishbowl.
No, not with aquatic animals.
“My doctor called in some gingivitis cream,” the elderly man in front of me says to the pharmacist as I wait in line at CVS.
How bad can it be to buy condoms? It’s a staple, like bread or milk. So it’s a little piece of plastic that covers a man’s ween. I shouldn’t be embarrassed, right?
Jenna realized our fishbowl of condoms was empty this morning and nearly went into cardiac arrest, and she was too slammed today to refill the stash, so I told her I’d buy them. It’s Friday after all. I can’t let the penis situation reach DEFCON One and leave my roommates in the lurch. No peen shall go unhelmeted on my watch.
I take a deep breath, ignoring the sweat collecting under my arms.
Ugh, it’s hot in here.
What’s worse than buying rubbers is I have to ask for the jumbo box behind the counter. Not the economy-sized box, but literally jumbo, so Ryan can wear them. Jenna and her boyfriend hump like sex-starved dogs in heat, and since we’ve heard how ginormous he is from her porno screams, I have to go the extra mile and request the Goliath of condoms.
When it’s my turn at the counter, I push my shoulders back.I’m a modern girl. I can do this.
“I’d like the jumbo box of Trojan Magnum Extra Large.” I say quietly, the words foreign on my tongue.
The pharmacist’s eyebrows raise marginally as she reaches behind her for the big shiny box.See, not so bad,I tell myself. Until I hear the whistle behind me.
“Sweetheart, where have you been my whole life?”
I tense a second before I roll my eyes.
“Really? That’s the line you’re going to use?” I mumble. Barely glancing back at the two guys behind me, I reach into my bag to pull out my wallet.
“Aw, come on, sugar. Don’t give me the cold shoulder. I have a thing for girls who stay well stocked.” The creepy snicker behind me makes the hair on my arms stand up. “You know, if you want to check these things for quality control, I could do a fitting for you. I hear I’m an excellent specimen.”
I hand money over the counter and turn around. The dude is tall and built, like body-builder big. I widen my eyes and get closer to him, batting my eyelashes like the bimbo he clearly thinks I am. I bite my lip as I check him out, taking in his broad shoulders before my eyes travel downthere. I let out a slutty giggle, turning my eyes back up to him with a small grin.
“That’s really nice of you to offer because you’resobuilt.”
He smiles broadly, like this is nothing new to him.
“You must lift weights every day, which must mean you have to be, um, compensating forsomething, so these babies,” I say, proudly shaking my box of ribbed, lubed rubbers, “are probablywayout of your league.”
It isn’t until Douchebag’s friend starts cracking up that I realize the sidekick looks familiar, but he’s wearing a baseball cap pulled down tight, so I can’t get a good look at his face. Shit.Where do I know him from?
After a second, I realize I don’t care and sigh at the nimrod hitting on me. He’s looking a little pale, and his smile has faded. Douchebag grumbles, “Bitch,” under his breath as I toss my bag over my shoulder and walk out.
I shake my head.Someone should tell him that’s not an insult. Especially if it keeps jackasses like him away from me.
* * *
“You’re high off your ass if you think I’m wearing this.” I turn in front of the mirror. Jenna’s skin-tight silver dress leaves nothing to the imagination. With a low back and scooped neckline, the outfit leaves me bare. “No way.”
Even when I pull out my ponytail, hoping to use my long, thick hair as a shield, I’m still revealing too much.
“Aw, come on!” Jenna is in full pout mode. Her hazel eyes are wide and pleading. I immediately liked Jenna the first time we met when she told me I had broccoli stuck between my two front teeth. Girlfriends who are straight shooters are hard to come by, but I still have a hard time believing that the tissue paper delicately wrapped around my body is appropriate to wear in public.
Jenna pokes me in the shoulder. “You totally blew us off last Saturday. You said I had carte blanche this weekend. Carte. Blanche.”
“Is dressing me like a streetwalker one of your goals?” My hands trail over the thin fabric, and I squirm thinking that people will see me in this outfit.
“If it makes you feel any better, you look amazing,” Harper says as she flops on my bed. “Only you could pull that off. You have a killer bod. Plus, the color of the dress makes your eyes look more gray than blue.”
Jenna points to Harper. “See, she would never lie. Please keep it on! You said you didn’t have anything to wear. I can’t return it, and it doesn’t look quite right on me. I thought it looked great in the store, but when I got it home I realized that it makes my skin look green. You somehow look tan, though. I hate you. Whore.”
I can’t help but laugh. But she’s right—I don’t have anything to wear.
Propping my elbow on my hip, I scoff. “Shut up or I’ll cut you.” She giggles while I crane my head around, checking out my rear in the mirror. “Well, before I go out in public like this, I have to know what our plans are.”
“We’re going to Ryan’s for dinner, and Jax is joining us!”
Jax is my other half. We were born three minutes apart. That Jenna has managed to pry my twin away from his soccer team and his flavor-of-the-month is impressive. We haven’t been close in a while, but I still try to make it to his games.
Jenna bumps me with her hip. “Then we’re going dancing, and I might also have an activity planned.” She has her hands clasped, and she looks like she’s going to start clapping from the excitement.
“Girl, you’ve gone through too much trouble. I don’t even like celebrating my birthday. You know this.”
Her eyes bug. “You and Jax are turning twenty-one. This is huge! We’re doing this right, and that means you need to look hot because it’s your night.”
I turn to Harper. “Are you sure I’m not going to be arrested for solicitation?”
She laughs and shakes her head.
“Fine. Let’s do this.”
* * *
I’m stunned by the spread of food and the fact that the house is overflowing with a weird collection of people—a few I know from work, Ryan and some of his band, and several groupies. It gets stranger when my brother and half of the Boston College soccer team saunter in. I should have worn my “friends don’t let friends go to BC” t-shirt. Boston University kids take this shit seriously.
“Hey, geek,” Jax says as he shakes off his date and leans over to hug me.
“Hey, loser.” Hugging him back, I grin. “I haven’t seen you since the Fourth of July. I thought you’d been abducted by one of your Russian supermodels.”
“I wish. Been busy with soccer.”
Jax reaches out to hug Jenna and Harper. After catching up for a few minutes, Jenna pushes Jax and me to a table that’s set up with a dozen shots.
“We need to toast the birthday twins!” Jenna shouts, and everyone cheers.
Who are all of these people? Looking around,I see Kade, Ryan’s drummer, talking to someone who looks familiar. The guy is tall, kind of rugged-looking. He’s wearing a dark flannel shirt over a fitted t-shirt, and he’s handsome, drop-dead gorgeous, actually. That admission has me suddenly very interested in the vodka to settle the surprising flutter in my stomach.
Jenna leans into me and grins. “I know you don’t usually drink, but you’re going to want to have a couple of these before we start my game.”
Before last spring, I couldn’t drink. Alcohol and anxiety meds don’t mix. But now that I’m pharmaceutical-free, the idea of doing shots to blunt the edge of whatever humiliating game Jenna has in store for me is appealing, so I reach for a shot.
“Bring it,” I say, clinking my glass with my brother’s and throwing it back.
“Did our parents call you?” Jax asks as we move toward the living room, waiting for Jenna to announce whatever crazy antics she has planned for tonight.
“No.” Do they ever? I think my brother keeps asking, hoping for a different answer. “Did they call you?”
“Nope. I talked to them a few weeks ago, and they said something about a dog show, so maybe they’re out of town.”
It’s a lovely idea, that our parents are busy traveling, but we both know that probably isn’t the case. The truth is they’re bona-fide assholes, more interested in work and their prize-winning dogs or car shows than their kids.
“I want your schedule so I can come to some of your games.”
When we were growing up, I was the only one who went to see him play. Our parents never made it. He won all kinds of awards and medals and a full ride to Boston College, and our parents probably don’t even know what position he plays.
“I’ll email it to you.” He clears his throat and shoves his hands in his pockets. “You know, uh, Daren still asks about you.”
My eyes narrow. “Don’t go there.” He gives me a look, and I exhale in irritation. “Why do people assume I’m still in love with him?” I say under my breath. “Jax, that’s history.”
“Is it? Because you haven’t dated anyone since.”
“Could you say that a little louder? I don’t think the people in the backyard heard.” Turning to glare at my brother, I swirl my next shot in the glass. “He slept with my best friend after I apparently made him wait too long to have sex. Excuse me if I have some trust issues.”
He cringes, but before he can respond, Jenna interrupts my tirade to announce she has something special planned for us.
“So the birthday girl has to wear this candy necklace, and she needs your help, fellas, because she doesn’t get her roommates’ awesome birthday gift until y’alleat her candy.” Jenna giggles, and as the realization of what she wants me to do settles in, I decide I might need to strangle her with my bare hands. Jax looks at me and laughs. “The birthday boy, who some of you might know as a star soccer player from BC, has to get twenty-one kisses. Girls, if you give him a kiss, you’ll need to put one of these heart stickers on his shirt or it won’t count.”
My brother, eager to get started with the game, spots a pretty girl and wanders off. As I turn, Kade strolls toward me with a predatory look in his eyes.Shit.He’s going to ask me out again. When does this guy ever learn? His father owns half of the state, and he simply wants me as another acquisition.
“Clementine, you look breathtaking tonight,” he says as he runs his hand through my hair. “So infinitely fuckable.”
I glare at him as I swat his hand away.
“Save your breath, Kade. Haven’t we had this conversation before?” I start to walk away, but he grabs my arm so hard I think he’s going to leave a bruise.
“Go out with me. I promise I’ll rock your world. I’ve been dying to taste yourcandyall year.”
Where did he learn how to talk like this? Douchebags-R-Us?
“Sorry, but we have a problem.” I square myself up to him. I’m only five five so he towers over me, but I’d like to emphasize what I’m about to say. “Assholes aren’t my type. And in case you missed the memo, you qualify as an asshole.” With that I wrench my arm free and stalk off. God, that guy makes me want to take another shower.
As I head for the table of booze, I come face-to-face with Tall, Dark and Rugged, who has his hand in his pocket as he leans against the wall.
“I know you,” I say, reaching for the Absolut as I try to place him.
“Yes, you do.”Oh, he has a sexy voice.A small smile tugs on his lips, and I have to tear my eyes away from his mouth.
“So, can you refresh my memory? How exactlydoI know you?”
“Darlin’, you’re gonna break my heart by not remembering me.”
Fighting the chill that runs down my arms when he calls me darling, I shrug, turning to my shot glass, which is my new best friend. He has the slightest Southern accent.Why am I even thinking about his accent… and his mouth… and those full lips?I shiver, wondering where my steely resolve to avoid good-looking men has gone.
Jenna scampers up to me and grins.
“Clem, this is Murphy, Ryan’s new guitarist. Murphy, this is my fabulous roommate, Clementine.”
Apparently satisfied with her introduction, Jenna disappears into the crowd as my eyes pass over Mr. Hottie. I’m using the excuse of trying to figure out how I know him, but the truth is I’m honestly intrigued by how handsome he is. Dark, wavy hair, perfect sun-kissed skin, breathtaking green eyes, broad shoulders.Wow. Wow. Wow.I find myself licking my lips.
After a moment, I shake my head. “That’s not your name.”
He holds out his hand.
“That would be Gavin Murphy. It’s lovely to formally meet you, Clementine.”
As I return the gesture, it comes to me.
“You’re an RA at Warren Towers.”
He grins, and it’s adorable. Dimples peek out, and I force myself not to stare. I’m starting to think that maybe coming out tonight wasn’t such a bad idea, but then he opens his mouth again.
“And you buy extra-large condoms.”
As the blood drains from my face, I yank back my hand. “What?”
He’s laughing, and I’m ten kinds of mortified. It takes me a second to place him.
“You were with that dickhead at CVS,” I croak.
He laughs. “I was actually just standing in line. I have no idea who he was except to say you have probably put him in therapy for having small junk.”
I don’t know if I’m feeling vulnerable because it’s my birthday and this is the most alcohol I’ve consumed in years, but the window of possibility I initially felt toward him instantly slams shut. I narrow my eyes at him and smirk.
“Well, spare yourself the effort because I doubt you’d make the cut either,” I say, downing my shot and walking off.Asshole.
Twenty minutes later, I’m talking to my brother on the back porch when Harper grabs me. “I need to warn you. Jenna plans to do some karaoke before we go to the club.”
“Okay,” I say slowly. “Jenna can’t sing, so this should be fun.”
“She’s not the one who’s going to sing. She plans to make you take the stage.”
“Shit. I don’t think I’m drunk enough for that.”
Harper laughs as she looks around the back yard, which is littered with random partygoers. “You have a great voice, so pretend you’re in the shower, and imagine everyone is naked. I mean, except for your brother ‘cause that’s gross.”
Jax raises his eyebrows.
I laugh. “Thatisgross.”
“There is nothing gross about me being naked,” he says.
Harper rolls her eyes at my brother and then nudges me as she whispers, “Pretend like I didn’t tell you anything because Jenna has been working really hard to make all of this a surprise. I just didn’t want you to get overwhelmed.”
“Thanks. This should be memorable.”
Jenna must be psychic because she beelines it to us, grinning like a guilty cat.
“One more little thing up my sleeve, birthday girl!” She loops her arm through mine, dragging me back to the living room.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Gavin talking to his friends. A tall redhead is leaning against him, laughing provocatively. She whispers in his ear as she places her hands on his sternum, and something hot churns in my chest.
He seems so at ease and confident. I bet he’s the kind of guy who has it all planned out—his career, the perfect wife, a two-story Cape Cod and a Golden Retriever. He’ll probably end up with someone like that girl who’s all curvy and flirtatious and leggy.
When he tried to talk to me, I was my usual sweet, charming self. He made a joke, and I bit his head off.Typical.
Screw it. Why the fuck should I care who he talks to?
He looks up, and my eyes dart away.
“My girl Clem is going to kick off the karaoke,” Jenna yells, shaking me out of my haze as she shoves a microphone into my hand. “What do you want to sing?”
I shrug and tell her to pick.You Know I’m No Goodby Amy Winehouse starts up. I grin. She knows me so well.
As I sing, I feel his eyes on me, and when I hit the chorus, I have a fleeting surge of bravery and look his way.
That’s right, Mr. Perfect. I’m talking to you. Because I’d never fit in your perfect little world.
I don’t know what I expected his reaction to be, but the corner of his mouth pulls up into a crooked grin just before I look away. Suddenly, I think I’m more nervous from that one little interaction than singing for a room full of people.
When I’m done, everyone is so quiet I can hear the clock on the wall, and I’m starting to wonder if I sounded like ass when everyone starts yelling and clapping.
Damn. Maybe I should do this more often.
Being jostled around does not feel good. Not. At. All.
I remember leaving Ryan’s and heading to the club… and then dancing under the swirly lights… and doing more shots…
“She’s hammered. Shit.”
I hear people talking about me like I’m not standing here right in front of them. Okay, I’m leaning on someone, but it’s pretty close to standing.
Jenna is talking, but she sounds muffled. “… I was planning to go home with Ryan, and Harper already left for her boyfriend’s place. Crap. I didn’t think she’d get wasted. I’ve never seen her drink this much.”
“I can take her home,” a familiar male voice says.
“Really?” It’s quiet except for the ringing in my ears from the club. I’m jostled again, and then I hear the jingle of keys. “I’m trusting you not to violate my best friend or run off with her. She’d better not show up on a damn milk carton.”
“Don’t worry. Drunk girls aren’t my thing.”
The world shifts as my arm is lifted off one person’s shoulders. Then I’m in the air.
“You’re pretty light. Hold on, darlin’.”
* * *
He smells so good. My nose is up against his neck, which is warm and smooth, and I want to snuggle.
“I never drink,” I murmur against his skin. When I open my eyes, I realize we’re in my living room, and I’m in Gavin’s arms.
“Yeah, I can tell. Clementine, which room is yours?”
I point in what I hope is the right direction. A door opens, and then he’s setting me down on the bed, and my arms are empty. The room tilts, and through my alcohol-induced fog, I realize I liked being held by him.
“Don’t go. I’m cold. You’re warm, and you smell good.”
He chuckles as his eyes pass over me. “You sure you want me here? You gave me a serious fuck-off vibe tonight.”
“I just do that. I’m broken.” I fall back into my bed. He reaches over and pulls off my shoes, and I curl up as he drapes a blanket over me. The room starts to spin.
“Why do you think you’re broken?”
I like his voice. It’s so, so sexy.
“Because I have pieces missing.”
“Where’d they go?”
That’s easy. “To BC.”
He laughs again and tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “They ate all the candy off your necklace,” he says softly.
“That was gross. One guy licked me. Asshole.”
He’s quiet, and then I hear him groan. “Clem, don’t tell me about guys licking your neck.” It’s funny that he would care. I just met him.
“You didn’t have any candy.”
“I wanted some.”
“Really?” I’m so tired, I can’t help but yawn.
After a few heartbeats, I realize what I want to tell him. “You know, they weren’t for me.” He’s quiet. He probably hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about. “The condoms were for the fishbowl.”
I want to explain how we have a communal fishbowl of condoms, and Jenna was having a penis emergency, but the words don’t come. All I can do is shiver.
“I’m cold and the spinning won’t stop,” I say. There’s silence again, and I wonder if he’s left, this beautiful man whom I watched all night, pretending to ignore. But the mattress sinks as he scoots into my narrow bed behind me, pressing his muscular body against my back. He reaches around my waist, and I relax into his warmth and close my eyes.
“I’m sorry I was an ass earlier,” he whispers into my ear.
“What do you mean?” He’s right here, but it’s like we’re talking in a dream. Maybe I’m asleep, and I’m dreaming, and for once in my life I can say what I feel.
“The condoms. I knew they weren’t for you. Every guy on campus knows you don’t date. I was, uh, trying to be funny. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
I don’t know why, but I giggle. “No, I have one gear. It’s bitch mode.”
“I’ve never heard that before.”
“That I’m a bitch?”
“No, your giggle. I like it.”
The spinning starts to subside. In the darkness, Gavin’s deep breaths are hypnotizing, and the rhythm steadies me.
“I remember you too.” His mouth is still against my ear, and the heat from his breath makes me shiver again.
“From Warren Towers?”
“No.” He fits against me, his broad shoulders pressed against my back and his arms wrapped around mine. This is nice. “Proseminar in Literature, freshman year.”
I’m still really buzzed, so it takes a while to jog my memory. “That was a long time ago and that class was huge. How do you remember me?”
He laughs, and his body moves against me. “You probably don’t realize this, but you’re hard to forget.”
My heart flutters and my breathing hitches, and I hope he doesn’t notice, but based on his small laugh, I’m guessing he does.
“Clem, don’t worry. You had a lot to drink tonight. You probably won’t remember this conversation tomorrow.”
I somehow doubt that. But the spinning starts again.
“If I do, if I do forget, will you remind me?”
The only answer I get is his arm pulling me closer to him.
* * *
When I wake up, my bed is empty, and a pang of disappointment hits me before a wave of nausea. I scramble out to the bathroom, ducking my head into the bowl just in time.
My head is pounding, and I want to crawl back into bed, but the thought of that disgusting guy at the club licking my neck last night makes me want to bathe with Lysol. I opt instead to take a shower, but I can’t find shit in my room because half of my stuff is still in boxes, so I end up with a towel and a black pair of boy shorts, which will have to do until my hangover subsides long enough to sift through my things.
The shower is painful. Although it feels good to get clean, I think I might hurl again. I lean against the shower wall, shaking and weak, and let the hot water pelt me until the nausea subsides.
Did I imagine Gavin staying with me last night?
Fighting the urge to freak out, I take deep breaths. All the details I know about Gavin tumble around in my head. He’s a great musician and an RA. He helps all those clueless freshmen through their first year in college. He spoons. He smells fucking amazing.
I roll my eyes at myself.
I shouldn’t let myself think about him. I can’t get shattered like that again.
Stepping out of the shower, I pull on my undies and dry my long hair before I wrap the towel around my chest. I wipe off the condensation and stare at my reflection. I look like shit. My eyes are bloodshot, and my skin looks sallow. I take a minute to remove the makeup that’s turned me into a raccoon before I open the door to go back to my room.
Suddenly, I’m tripping over something hard. I wince at the sharp pain in my foot. That’s when I look up to see three guys sitting on the couch, staring at me, in time for my towel to fall. But I’m frozen, my heart pounding in my chest as my head acknowledges that I’m okay. Just half naked.
I growl. “Who the hell put a fucking skateboard in front of a door? Are you trying to kill someone?” They’re still staring at me as I grab my towel and throw it over my shoulder. Storming off back to my room, I yell, “What? It’s not like you’ve never seen boobs before. Get over it.”
I slam my door, escalating the pounding in my head.
It’s almost noon. Good God, I can’t believe I have to go to work today. What was I thinking? Shuffling boxes around my small room, I finally find some clothes, so I grab jeans and a t-shirt.
I hear Ryan through the walls. “Baby, don’t get mad, but we saw Clem naked.”
“She wasn’t naked,” another voice says. “Well, not entirely.”
Who was out there?Ryan, Kade, and… Gavin.Fuck.
A few minutes later, someone taps on my bedroom door.
“Clem, honey, it’s me. Can I come in?” Jenna asks, her Southern drawl lengthening around the vowels. The door creeks open, and she pokes her head in. I’m half dressed as she surveys the mess of boxes and steps closer. “Are you okay?”
I press my palm to my forehead. “Sorry I flashed your boyfriend.”
She laughs softly, shutting the door behind her. “That’s okay. I’m sure you fulfilled one of his fantasies just now.” Jenna is so used to the groupies at his shows, nothing fazes her anymore. The only thing she cares about is that he goes home with her. “Can I get you some Advil or something?”
I nod, choking on what I want to say.
“Did, uh, did Gavin stay here last night?” I ask, afraid of the answer.
“Yeah, honey. But he swears he was a gentleman. I think he saw more when you walked out of the bathroom a minute ago than he did all night.” She’s laughing, and my head pounds harder, which I’m guessing is because I’m blushing a deep shade of red. “He’s been really sweet. He carried you two blocks last night and tucked you in bed, and this morning he brought you some breakfast.”
My heart constricts. She must see the look on my face.
“Hey,” she says, reaching over and hugging me, “don’t make this something it isn’t. He’s a great guy, and he must like you, but I don’t think he’s going to stalk you or anything crazy.”
“That’s not it.” The sound of blood beats wildly in my ears.
“Can I give you some advice?” Her face is full of concern. “Don’t blow him off. I know you’re afraid to get close to anyone, but I think he’s a catch, and good golly, he’s pretty. He couldn’t take his eyes off you all evening even though you were giving him your famous cold shoulder.”
I press my face into my hand. “I was such a bitch to him last night. Why he’d want to have anything to do with me is—”
“How can you say that? You’re a gorgeous woman and a brilliant writer. Don’t be so down on yourself. Look, get dressed, and come out and have breakfast with us. I swear the guys won’t give you shit about seeing you naked.”
Jenna looks like she’s ready to go out there and threaten their lives if they turn her into a liar. I crack a smile.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to thank you for the party. You outdid yourself. Did Jax get home okay?”
She smirks. “Yeah, some model in a cherry-red Mustang picked him up from the club. I think a photo of it got posted on a gossip website.”
I roll my eyes. “Sounds like my brother.”
Ten minutes later, when I walk into the living room, everyone stops talking. I planned to be social and eat with my friends, but I can’t. My heart is pounding, and I’m breaking out into a cold sweat. My hands tremble at my side, from the alcohol or nerves, I’m not sure which.
“I have to go to work,” is all I can muster before Ryan jumps off the couch and grabs me in a giant bear hug.
“Sorry my stuff tripped you, and you flashed us your goodies, but damn, girl, you’re hot. You have nothing to be embarrassed about.”
I lean back and look him in the eye. “Are you always such a pig?”
“Why, yes, yes, I am.” He grins, placing a small peck on my cheek. “And why the fuck am I just now learning that you sing? Jesus Christ, you have some pipes.”
“Thanks. That’s nice of you to say. And thank you for the party. I had a really good time.”
“Watching those guys fall over themselves to eat food off your body was more than worth it. How many asked you out?”
I shrug. Who counts that kind of shit?
“Please tell me you have at least a dozen dates now.” He grabs my shoulders and starts to shake me, which makes me groan. Does he have any idea what he’s doing to my hangover?
“C’mon, Ryan, you know me better than that.” I glance over at Gavin.
“You didn’t give out your number?” Ryan asks incredulously. I shake my head. “To anyone?”
“Why would I do a thing like that?” I say, grabbing my jacket. My heart is pounding. I need to get out of here. Now.
As I reach the door, I hear footsteps behind me.
“Wait up, Clem,” Gavin says. “I’ll walk you out.”
* * *
Each step I take reflects the throbbing in my temple.
“Here, drink this,” Gavin says as he catches up to me in the stairwell. He hands me a green beverage.
I eye it skeptically. “I’m pretty sure I threw this up about an hour ago.”
He laughs, unleashing one of those megawatt smiles, and it ripples through me like a tidal wave. “Trust me, it’ll help the nausea.” God, he has beautiful eyes. They’re green, the color of a dark forest, and rimmed with thick lashes.
Snap out of it, Clem.
“Trust you, huh?” I nibble on my lip before I lean in and sniff. It smells fruity, so I take a small sip, and it tastes like apples with the slightest hint of ginger.
“Okay, this isn’t bad.”
Gavin’s lips tug up further.
His hair is still damp from a shower, and he smells like soap. The morning stubble on his face gives his boyish smile an edge. I find myself thinking about rubbing that face against me to feel that roughness against my skin.
Oh, fuck, I need to get away from him.
I turn and start down the stairs again, and I hear his steps behind me.
Did he go home, shower and come back?I know he only lives a block away at the dorms, but still. He went through too much trouble.
“Did, uh, did you really carry me home from the club?” I ask, pausing to see his response.
He looks away a second before he shrugs. “Maybe.”
Shit. I don’t know what to do with him. He’s all kinds of sexy and sweet, and I desperately want to pull away and hide before we can ever get close.He didn’t even try to grope me last night,I think, and I was barely wearing anything in Jenna’s sluttacular dress.
I start to turn, and he touches my arm to stop me.
“I have a proposal, Clem.” He sounds all businesslike, which makes me wonder what his major is. I really don’t know that much about him except that he carries dumb drunk girls home and doesn’t have roaming hands.
I tilt my head, curious about this proposal.
Gavin tucks his hands in the pockets of his black hoodie. “How about we go climbing on Friday at the gym and maybe grab a bite after? But just as friends because I know you don’t date.”
I almost laugh at the tone of his voice. He might be sayingjust friends, but that’s not how he’s looking at me right now.
“How do you know I climb?” BU has one of the best fitness facilities in the country, complete with one badass climbing wall that I do a couple of times a week.
He smiles again as his eyes pass over my body, sending another shiver down my back.
“You’re in amazing shape, and I’d venture to say that’s where you got those killer abs.”
My face flushes at the memory of exactly how he saw my abs this morning, and my defenses flare up.
This is too much. He’s too much. I’m going to get hurt.
But I don’t want to be rude. I know I’m not myself when I’m thinking about letting a guy down easily.
“Can I think about it?”
He seems unfazed and nods.
“Sure, call me when you decide,” he says as he starts walking back up to my apartment.
“I don’t have your number,” I blurt out.
Wait. Why would I point that out?
“Yeah, you do. Check your phone,” he says with a grin as he disappears up the stairs.
* * *
Gavin Murphy programmed his number into my phone.I’m sitting at work, wondering if I should be totally flattered or freaked.
I reach for my cell and text him before I take a second to consider whether I should be communicating with him at all.
Me:How did you know that I’d want your number? A little presumptuous, no?
He texts me back a minute later:How could you not? I’m a great snuggler, remember? And I didn’t grope you in bed even though I really wanted to.
Me:Doesn’t mean you’re not a perv.
Gavin:I’m most definitely a perv, baby.
I laugh, shaking my head as the evening crew walks in. One of the guys says, “Hey, Clem, that’s quite a smile. Someone is in a good mood today.”
I shake off my stupid grin and stare down the little sophomore, whose face falls.
When my professor talks about sex, she sounds like she’s purring, but since she’s French, I attribute her quasi-animalistic tones to her European roots.
“You must dig deep,” Professor Marceaux says as she paces the front of the classroom. “You must get to the core of what makes relationships bloom, what makes them falter, what destroys them.”
Cheating.Cheating destroys relationships. Blow jobs from other girls also fall under this category. I blink, and I see an image of Daren, the one that’s haunted me for years, where his face is contorted in a mixture of pleasure and pain from whatever Veronica is doing to him.
Marceaux taps the podium.
“First loves are at the core of many romance novels, so you can use your experiences, however wondrous and exciting and painful, as fodder for your manuscripts. The reader should experience the blooming of this relationship with all of its awkwardness and lust and possibly shame. You Americans seem determined to feel guilty about having sex, so explore this aspect if it’s been a part of your experience. I want this to be authentic, and as this is a senior writing course, I’m sure you all have adequate personal examples from which to draw.”
My experience?Oh, fuck me now.
Jenna nudges me and smiles.
“It’ll be okay,” she whispers.
Marceaux pauses when she reaches the end of the room and stares out the window. “Your semester-long assignment is to write a thirty-thousand-word novella. I want to see a fifteen-page scene by next week, starting with the first time your lovers meet. Show me their attraction, why they can’t stay away from one another, and what is keeping them apart.” She adjusts her glasses before she turns back to the class. “We’ll separate into writing groups to critique. By the way, I can smell bullshit, so don’t attempt to pawn off some dime-store romance on me. I want authentic relationships, ladies and gentlemen!”
* * *
When Harper joins me for lunch in the student union, her brows quirk up and crinkle as her watchful eyes appraise me.
“You look upset.” She takes a bite of her sandwich and lets the silence settle.
We’ve always met here. I’d be having panic attacks over how I was going to pay for school or the fact that I thought my professor was a creeper, and Harper and I would curl up here, hidden behind the decorative planter box, and she’d talk me off the ledge. Thank God she’s a psych major.
I’ve only had one other best friend, who betrayed me in the worst possible way, and it took a long time to trust Jenna and Harper, but they never stopped trying. I don’t know what they saw in me, but their friendship helped pull me out of the darkness to the point that I don’t need to take anxiety meds anymore.
Exhaling a deep breath, I say, “I’m overwhelmed. I’m supposed to tutor tonight, but I have a ton of work to do on my website if I ever want to sell a second book, and people keep emailing me about howSay It Isn’t Soneeds a new cover. I guess I need someone to redesign it. And I’m having trouble with my writing class.”
She frowns. “Talk to Dani about the cover design. She works in the art lab, and I bet she knows people who do that stuff if she can’t.”
“I had no idea she was an artist.” Peeling back the corner of my Peach Snapple, I realize how little I know about this girl despite having lived with her for almost two weeks. “I’m a sucky roommate.”
Harper laughs as she takes a sip of her water. “But you have potential.” I shake my head, feeling a little better now that I’ve unloaded a little. “Don’t worry about the writing assignment. You’ve got this. You’re a bestselling YA author, freak.”
I don’t always believe this, but every month I get statements from Amazon that prove this crazy fact. I think I’m able to sell books, not because I’m creative or original, but because I’ve been honest about the crazy shit that’s gone down in my life. Of course, I wrap it up in a thin veneer of fiction, but my best work always originates from my own experiences. I don’t need make-believe when real life is more fucked up. Especially my life.
Honestly, the whole publishing process scares the hell out of me, like with full-out nightmares or bouts of insomnia, but I want to pull up my big-girl panties and move on.
The little pep-talk voice in my head tells me I can do this without Jason Wheeler’s help, and I hope that’s not just wishful thinking. Because I’ve only finished that one book. And damn it if it wasn’t in part because Wheeler encouraged me every step of the way.
I think that’s why I’ve been struggling with writer’s block. Since shit went down with Wheeler my freshman year, I’ve sequestered myself in a lot of ways, but keeping people at arm’s length is what helped me survive. That’s the trouble, though. My last two years of college have been quiet. Safe but insulated. With no drama. No cheating boyfriends. No crazy professors. No emotional breakdowns.
But I’m starting to realize that closing myself off has taken its toll. I think that’s why Marceaux’s assignment has been so difficult. I can write about Young Adult heartbreak because I’ve experienced it, but I don’t know jack about adult relationships.
“Does your professor know who you are?” Harper asks, jarring me from my pensive thoughts.
“No. And I’m keeping it that way. In case I forgot to say it, you were a genius for suggesting I use a pen name. Plus, I was late for that first class, so I missed the whole ‘who’s been published?’ conversation.”
“Would it be so bad if she knew?”
My blood pressure rises thinking about that possibility.
“One, I don’t want brownie points for shit I wrote three years ago. Two, you know I can’t handle people readingSay It Isn’t Soand suspecting that all that crap really happened to me. Besides, the fewer people who know I wrote it, the better. If this ends up in the tabloids, I’d die.” I shred the napkin in front of me. “And three, it’s liberating to be able to write without the scrutiny of people knowing who you are.” Or at least it’s supposed to be.
Her eyes are understanding. “Tell me what’s been so difficult about this class.”
With the move and my birthday and classes starting up, we haven’t had much time to talk lately, so I unload it all. That I don’t know what to write as a follow-up to my first book.That I’d better figure it out soon if I plan to pay my spring tuition. That even if I could use my romance-writing assignment for my new book, it still has to be good. Never mind that I have no fucking idea how to write an honest-to-goodness romance. One-night stands I can do because the emotions don’t run deep. But love? Trust? Vulnerability? I’m not so sure I can pull that off.
“Your professor said that? You have to write about sex?” Harper asks, her eyes wide.
“No, but given the examples she’s read us in class, I know that’s what she’s expecting. She wantsintimacy.” My heart sinks as I flick a piece of wilted lettuce from my salad. “Come on, Harper, I know shit about relationships and even less about sex.”
Just talking about intimacy has me practically hyperventilating. I take a sip of water and start counting backward from a hundred like my shrink taught me.
Harper puts down her sandwich and grabs my arm, pausing me mid-gulp.
“Relax. I will cut that bitch up if she fails you.”
She says it straight-faced, and I start laughing so hard that water comes shooting out my nose. My little prim and proper best friend going hood has me in hysterics, and I stop counting.
* * *
On Thursday night, I get his text:So. How about it? Meet me at the gym at 4:30 tomorrow?
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking about going climbing with Gavin.Just as friends… His words make me smile.
I’m so tired of being in hibernation mode. My friends assume I’ve been denying myself all this time, like I’m into some kind of asceticism, but the truth is I’ve been numb—numb from my parents not giving a shit about me, numb from breaking up with Daren, numb from my asshole professor attacking me. I just haven’t felt anything, and when I have, it’s been rage, and the only face I could put on all of this was Clem, the bitch. I can’t count the number of people who have gotten in my path and felt my wrath. I’m the youngest assistant manager at my job, not just because I run the campus bookstore like a damn naval operation, but also because the kids who work for me don’t want to piss me off.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t like who I’ve become. I mean, at first this was about survival—getting to my next class, making it to work on time, living with strangers—but now that I have the basics figured out, I’m still walking around in my protective shell while life goes on around me. And while the idea of getting close to Gavin scares the living shit out of me, being near him reminds me of a time when I used to take chances and be carefree and be the girl everyone wanted to be around.
Fuck it.I go climbing on Friday mornings anyway. I’ll do it in the afternoon instead.
I text him back before I have a chance to chicken out.
* * *
Usually, the smell of the locker room is strangely soothing, but right now it’s making me nauseous. Turning back to my gym bag, I pull out a hot pink tank top and black spandex shorts.
I pack my clothes ahead of time, so I don’t have to think about it when I’m rushing around in the morning, but now that I’m meeting Gavin in five minutes, I wish I’d given my outfit a little more thought. This is tight. And revealing.
I start to laugh.He’s already seen me half naked.Girls scamper around here in sports bras all the time, so I guess this isn’t a big deal. Besides, it’s hard to climb in baggy clothes.
When I walk out, Gavin is leaning against a pillar, talking on the phone. He sees me and smiles, motioning that he’ll join me in a minute. I point toward the climbing wall, and he nods.
As I strap myself into the gear, he walks up, unnerving me with one of those killer grins.Oh, my God. Is that a chin dimple?
“Hey,” I say, trying to sound collected. “Do you want to spot me or should I ask a staff member?” My hands linger on a carabiner. I get the sense I should hug him, but that’s weird. I hardly know him. Except for the spooning.
Ugh. I wish I hadn’t thought about that.
Gavin raises his eyebrows and reaches over to grab my rope. He smells like citrus and sunshine, and it makes my mouth water.
“Must you ask, Clementine?”
I’ve never been turned on by how a guy says my name, but damn, I love how it sounds coming from him. I fight the embarrassed smile that’s threatening to spread on my face and duck my head to check my gear.
He nudges me with his elbow, and I look up at him.
“It’s nice to see you.” His voice is scratchy and deep, and it makes me wonder what he sounds like first thing in the morning.
I swallow. “It’s good to see you too.”
And, oh my, it is. He’s wearing thin black sweats that hang low on his hips and a dark fitted t-shirt that makes me wonder what he looks like underneath. My stomach does a few backflips when his eyes pass over me.Clothes. I should be wearing more clothes.
I finally break the silence because not talking is making me more nervous. “Okay, so don’t drop me.”
He laughs and runs his hands through his dark hair. “I carried you home, remember? I’m not going to let anything happen to you, darlin’.”
If I hadn’t been anxious before, I definitely am now. Being near him has my insides twisting around like I’m electrically charged.
Forty-five minutes later, I’m drenched in sweat as I rappel down the wall for the third time. I’ve had to battle to concentrate on what I’m doing instead of thinking that he’s below me, possibly checking out my ass.
“You’re a beast,” Gavin says as he eyes his watch. “This last time up was your fastest. How’s that possible?” He looks genuinely impressed.
“I run a lot, so this isn’t a big deal. Thanks for spotting me this long. Let’s swap.”
When he steps into his gear, he puts his hand on my shoulder to steady himself even though there’s a giant three-story structure in front of him. I stiffen at his touch, but when he finally looks up and smiles, I almost forget I’m uncomfortable. Almost.
As he ascends the wall, I must be boring holes into his back with the way I’m staring at Gavin’s body. Every time he reaches over to grab another hold, the muscles in his arms and back bulge against his clothes. His shirt rides up, and when he turns sidewise, I can see his taut stomach descending into his sweats.Holy delicious six-pack.
I finally break my eyes away, embarrassed, and try to think about something constructive. Like math. I suck at math. I definitely should be more worried about math.
After I spot him for two more sprints runs up the wall, we go our separate ways toward the locker rooms and meet up after quick showers.
“You hungry?” He elbows me gently as we walk out onto the street.
“You want to hang out with me while I babysit the toddlers at Warren, and we’ll order some pizza?”
It’s Friday night, so Warren Towers will be a zoo with freshmen bouncing off the walls like spider monkeys.
“I have to work on a paper, a manuscript for my creative writing class, and I should really get started on it. I’ve been struggling to come up with an idea, so I don’t know that I’d be good company.”
He takes my gym bag out of my hands, combining the handles with his before tossing both of them over his shoulder.
“That’s perfect because I have to write an article for theFreepthat’s due tomorrow, so we’ll work together.”
TheFreepis theDaily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper, which makes me realize I have no idea what he’s studying. My skin prickles as I think about the tabloids that have printed articles about my brother in the past.
“Are you a communications major?” I ask as we start our trek back toward central campus.
He nods. “Double major in journalism and English. You?”
A knot forms in my stomach as I think about the irony of spending time with a reporter. Before I get a chance to list all the reasons spending time with him is a stupid idea, I remind myself that he’s friends with Ryan and Jenna, and they’d never encourage me to spend time with a creep or someone they felt would jeopardize my privacy. Warm fuzzies spread in me as I think about how protective my friends are. I may give Ryan shit, but I know he’d knock out Gavin or die trying if Gavin ever hurt me.
Remembering Gavin asked me a question, I say, “English and creative writing, which must be how we had Prosem together freshman year.”
He smiles, and something in those sultry green eyes makes me want to ignore my urge to run and hide. “Creative writing? Is that why you were looking for inspiration?”
I tilt my head, confused.
“At Warren on moving day, when you were all curled up in the common room trying your hardest to ignore me.”
I laugh. “Jeez, yeah, I’m sorry. I was trying to get in the zone.”
“The zone, huh?” He pauses to let me walk ahead of him when we reach a narrow walkway. “Ryan tells me you’re a great writer, that you’ve written a book and you’re working on another one.”
I stop mid-step as all the positive feelings I had for Ryan a minute ago take a nose dive. Ryan and his big mouth!
Letting out a humorless laugh, I shake my head. “He’s never read my work, so I’m not entirely sure how he can say that.”
I reluctantly tell him how I plan to turn whatever I write for Marceaux’s class into something longer, hopefully my second book. I just leave out the part about how I need to do it to pay my bills.
“So you’re actually published?” he asks as we start walking again.
I’m encouraged by the admiration in his eyes and nod slowly.
“That’s really impressive, Clem.”
I can’t help the embarrassed grin on my face. “Thanks, but I’m kind of blocked right now. I have until Monday to figure it out because my fifteen-page draft is due on Tuesday.”
He looks like he wants to say something else, but I start talking before he can ask any more questions, like the name of my book or what it’s about. Thank baby Jesus for pen names.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Gavin…” I trail off, and he raises his eyebrows. “At Warren that day, why didn’t you just tell me you knew me from class?”
He looks down at his feet and shrugs. “I wanted to see if you’d tell me your name.”
“Okay,” I say slowly. “Did you remember it?”
“But you asked anyway?”
I wait for a better response and finally nudge him. He turns toward me and grins. “I guess I wanted the challenge. Would Clementine Avery tell me her name?”
“That’s stupid.” I laugh, covering my mouth.
“Yeah, but you did. Now what does that say?” Gavin says as he stares at me, humor flitting behind his eyes.
I fold my arms over my chest. “That you pestered me until I gave in.”
He barks out a laugh. “Damn. I thought you were going to say I was so charming you couldn’t help yourself.”
“Well, there’s that.” I smirk, and he gently elbows me back.
When we get to his dorm, freshmen are stumbling in and out through the double doors.
“C’mon,” he says, like he’s not giving me a choice. “Let’s go find you some inspiration, and maybe you can peer-pressure me into doing my article.”
“Did you just use peer pressure as a verb?”
“God, you make me hot when you talk grammar.”
I laugh because he’s being so stupid and adorable. He smiles, wrapping his arm around my shoulder and pulling me toward the dorm.
When we exit the elevators, I’m taken back three years. The smell of expensive perfumes and beauty products permeate the air as half-naked girls scamper from room to room, squealing about their plans to go bar-hopping or pick up guys. One spots Gavin and smiles before she sees me and darts off. The guys’ hallway is quiet in contrast.
Gavin walks to his room, the first one on the right after the elevators, seemingly oblivious to the frantic pace of what’s happening on the girls’ side of the floor.
His door has his hours of availability posted, along with a dry-erase board that has a message written in neon pink that says, “I heart Gavin.” I smirk at it before I can stop myself. He sees the note and rolls his eyes and rubs it off with his elbow. Following in behind him, I’m grateful he leaves the door open.
His room smells like him, like fresh laundry and some kind of sexy-ass shower gel. He drops our bags into the chair at his desk.
“Your room is pretty neat for a guy’s.” Eyeing him curiously, I’m more than intrigued about what else I’m going to learn about him tonight. His desk is organized: a laptop, several reference books, a giant mug of pens, and a board with notes and concert tickets pinned across it.
I get a good look at that coffee cup. It reads, “The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.” I try not to laugh.Oh my God. He’s a geek who jokes about verb tenses.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Gavin pulls out two bottled waters from his micro-fridge and starts to hand one to me, but when I reach for it, he doesn’t let go. Instead, our fingers stay coiled together. He stares at me, those dark lashes fanning across his tanned skin, and his close proximity sends a spark through me like fire raging through a forest after a drought. My head twists up to look at him, and he smiles devilishly before he lets go and brushes past me.
Uh, make that a hot geek.
As I attempt to dislodge my heart from my esophagus, I continue assessing his room. Several instruments sit propped against the wall, and I find myself staring at one that looks like a miniature guitar.
“That’s a mandolin,” he says, picking it up and strumming a few chords.
I listen to the soft melody for a few minutes. “It’s crisper than a guitar.”
“Yeah. It is.”
Chewing on my lip, I make a mental note of the differences in the instruments. “It reminds me of… Actually, never mind. It’s stupid.”
I start to turn away, and he stops playing.
“Tell me.” He looks genuinely interested. My lips twist briefly as I consider what I want to say.
“It reminds me of the end ofThe Outsiders.” His eyebrows raise, prompting me to continue. “After Johnny dies, and Ponyboy finds his letter that tells him to stay gold, like the sunset they saw while they were hiding out. That’s like the mandolin. Golden.” I pull on the end of my ponytail, eager to find something for my hands to do.
When I glance at him, I can’t quite make out what passes behind his eyes, but it makes me nervous, big-lump-in-my-belly nervous. I swallow and make a concerted effort to breathe.
“Your room is very nice, Mr. Murphy. I’m impressed with your organization, especially since you just moved in.” I’m relieved to regain my ability to speak.
“I was here all summer interning at theBoston Globe, so I couldn’t move back home.”
An internship before his senior year. Impressive.
“Where’s home?” I ask.
He puts the mandolin back. “Connecticut.”
“But that’s not where you’re from.” I keep hearing it in my head, the Southern way he says darlin’.
One side of his mouth slants upward in a half smile. “I grew up in Austin, Texas, but we moved when I was eight. How did you know I wasn’t from New England?”
“Lucky guess,” I say, not wanting to divulge how closely I’ve been paying attention to him. “Are both parents back there?”
“Yeah, they’re teachers,” he says, answering my next question before I ask it.
“Yup, and still in love. It’s sweet. And kind of disgusting. They still make out like teenagers.”
I laugh at the embarrassment in his face and wonder what it would be like to have parents who actually liked each other.
“Where are you from?” He hands me my bag.
“Nowhere exciting. Lexington.” A whole forty-five minutes away.
“So you must get home a lot.”
“No, never,” I say as I peruse the books in his shelves. He has several biographies of famous journalists, a book on Watergate, a lot of classics. Spotting a couple of F. Scott Fitzgerald titles, I smile to myself, but then my heart seizes up when I see a half dozen black Moleskine journals standing at attention. God, this guy is perfect.
“Really?” He looks at me quizzically as he takes off his sweatshirt, which makes his black t-shirt rise, revealing that tantalizing six-pack. I avert my eyes so I don’t stare at his bare, muscular stomach with that sexy V that makes me stupid.
I clear my throat. “Haven’t been home in three years. Jax goes back, but my mother has a soft place in her soulless black heart for him.”
He’s watching me, gauging whether or not I’m joking. He must realize I’m not.
“Are you and your brother close?”
Fighting the urge to shut down at the personal question, I make myself answer.
“We’re twins, so I guess we are by default from sharing the same uterus for nine months. He’s kind of busy with soccer and girls, so we don’t hang out much, but I try to go to his games.”
Gavin frowns for a second. “It must be hard being an Avery. There must be a lot of pressure.”
So he does know who I am.
I mean, of course he does. He’s a reporter. He probably thinks I’m some little rich girl.
I wait, wondering if he’ll turn on me and want something because that’s always what happens, but he actually looks concerned, like he cares about my wellbeing. Something inside me relaxes, and I shrug.
“It’s just a last name. It’s not like I’m at the helm of my family’s corporation or ever will be. No thanks.” If my mother had it her way, I’d be trotting around like a prized pony, wearing something from her fashion line and whoring myself out to the cameras.
Looking to change the subject, I ask, “Are you an only child?” Something about how responsible he seems tells me he’s either an only child or the oldest.
“No, I have a little sister who’s a senior in high school.”
He goes over to his desk as he reaches into his pocket for his phone. He motions for me to grab a seat, so I sit at the edge of his bed.
“What article are you working on tonight?” I ask.
His eyebrows furrow. “A follow-up on Olivia Lawrence, the BU student who disappeared this summer.”
It’s been one of the biggest news stories on campus all fall.
“I’ve read those. They’re kind of intense. You wrote them?”
They’ve been headlining articles since school started. Some have explored theories that she was abducted or possibly drowned in the Charles River. Others have been about her home life and family. One was about the new self-defense classes that started as a result of her disappearance.
I wait for him to say something, maybe brag about how he’s on the front page constantly, but he doesn’t.
Finally, he sighs. “I’ve been writing for theFreepsince the first week of my freshman year, and I’ve never hated working on a story more.”
He grabs a binder out of his bag and rearranges a few things on his desk. “It kills me to have to interview her friends and family. It’s so intrusive.” He stills, and his shoulders slump. “That part of the job has never bothered me before, but having her mom fall apart on me every time I see her breaks my heart.”
Even though I haven’t known him long, I want to take him into my arms and comfort him.
“But maybe your coverage will help find her. Maybe something you write will bring her home.”
He takes a deep breath and looks up at me with a sad smile that tells me I’m being overly optimistic.
I pull out my journal and a pen from my bag, and I search for something to lighten the mood. Motioning to his guitar, I ask how long he’s been in Ryan’s band.
“Since June.” He motions toward me. “You have a killer voice, by the way.”
I stare at him and blink.
“You sang at your party.” He says it slowly, almost like a question.
“Oh, that.” I shrug. “I sing in the shower…” My voice trails off as I remember tripping and dropping my towel and flashing him my goodies last weekend.
Trying to distract myself from that embarrassing memory, I stare out the window. His room faces the middle tower of dorms, but because he’s on the northernmost side of the building, he has a stunning view of the river that runs parallel with the campus. The dark swath of water is calm tonight as it laps against the banks. I love running along the Charles. If I don’t climb, that’s where I head to unwind, to pound my frustrations and fears into the pavement while the wind whips through my hair.
Gavin orders pizza, and he muffles the phone to ask my preference of toppings.
“Pepperoni and mushrooms?” I ask, unsure of what he likes.
He winks back and places our order.Damn it, he’s cute.
“You can take off your shoes if you want, sprawl out, get comfortable. I usually write at my desk,” he says as he hangs up.
“Are you sure?”
He nods, like he really doesn’t care that I’m lounging on his bed.Okay.I kick off my shoes and scoot back until I’m leaning against the wall. Thankfully, I just showered, so I’m sporting clean socks. I start doodling in my journal while Gavin flips through some notes and opens his laptop.
After half an hour, the phone rings and he heads downstairs to get our food. A minute later, I hear a soft knock.
“Are you Murphy’s girlfriend?” a peppy little voice asks.
A cute blonde girl in boxer shorts and a t-shirt is leaning in the doorway. She looks at me sideways and repeats her question.
“I, uh… we’re friends.”
She looks at me like I didn’t say something right.
I clear my throat. “I’m Clem.”
“Because he said he had a girlfriend, like a serious one he’s been dating for a few years, and you’regorgeous, like the kind of girl I imagined he’d date. But you’re saying that’s not you?”
I shake my head.
“Huh. Maybe he’s dating that tall redhead.” Her eyebrows scrunch briefly before she bounds off with her tidbit of gossip.
Who’s the redhead? That girl from my birthday party? I hadn’t asked Gavin if he was seeing anyone, but Jenna was trying to introduce us, and I know she’d never waste her time if she thought he was dating someone.
“Why are you frowning?” Gavin walks in with a pizza box and soda.
“I didn’t realize I was. One of the girls came by looking for you, but I didn’t catch her name.” I describe her to him, but he seems distracted by the food.
“If it’s important, she’ll come back.”
I want to ask him the question, but my heart is doing all kinds of crazy acrobatics in my chest. I should get this over with because if he has a girlfriend, what the hell am I doing here? I mean, he said “just friends,” and okay, he’s a cool guy, and we could be friends, but fuck.
“You’re doing it again.” He’s standing there, frozen, with a paper plate in each hand.
“Frowning. It’s kind of cute, actually. Unless there’s something wrong.”
“No, nothing’s wrong.”
Play it cool, Clem.I’ve been warming up to the idea of Gavin all week, but I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t throwing me in reverse so fast I might get whiplash. But the chill settling over me helps me clamp down on my emotions.
I motion toward the hall. “She mentioned your girlfriend, which makes me wonder if I met her the other night at the party and didn’t realize it.”
He grins so wide it catches me off guard.Okay, that’s not the reaction I was expecting.
“I tell the kids I have a girlfriend so they leave me alone.”
I’m so relieved, I want to laugh. He’s still grinning like an idiot.
“You. You were jealous.” He’s looking at me like he knows exactly what I was thinking, and I want to crawl under his bed. Maybe even under the building.
“No, I wasn’t. We’rejust friends, remember?” Throwing his own words back at him, I smile coolly.
I don’t think he believes me.
“Here. Eat up,” he says, ignoring what I said and handing me a plate of pizza. “You need to replenish after kicking my ass on the wall today.”
“Whatever. I think you held your own.” I reach for a slice and take a bite. My stomach is growling. I glance out the window again, mesmerized by the lights of the city and the dark river below. That’s when it hits me.
“So do girls hook up with their RAs?” I turn to look at him. His eyes are wide, and I realize maybe he thinks I’m insinuating he’s done this, so I shake my head before he misunderstands. “Because that would make for an interesting story. A freshman girl who falls in love with her RA, but they can’t be together, so they sneak around.”
“Oh, um, yeah,” he laughs. “It happens. Obviously, it’s not supposed to, but it’s not illegal or anything. The girls in Warren are eighteen or older. But it’s definitely scandalous when it does go down.”
I drop my pizza and open my journal to a fresh page and start writing.
Forty-five minutes later, I’m still at it. I’m lying on his bed with his pillow tucked under my chest as I lean forward to scribble down ideas. Finally, after I’ve jotted down all of my initial thoughts, I close my book and curl up. I haven’t written like that in so long. I feel weightless and a little buzzed from the euphoria of breaking through and being able to write again.
Gavin is sitting at his desk, but he’s turned his chair around and is staring at me. Why is he staring at me?
“Was that the zone?” he asks.
“I think you were in the zone. I asked you at least five things, at which point you mumbled something back that was completely incoherent.”
I grin. “Yeah, that was the zone. Sorry, I didn’t mean to ignore you. Sometimes I’ll write all night if I’m on a roll.” Seeing my uneaten pizza, I groan. “No wonder I’m famished.” I take a few bites. “Have I told you how much I love pizza?”
He seems happy that I’m eating, and I’m so thrilled to be writing again, I have a hard time not smiling around a mouthful of food.
“So now you have your idea, and you’re all set.”
Sighing, I pull off a mushroom and pop it in my mouth. “I wish. This is a romance novel-writing class. I’ve been writing Young Adult. They’re different.” I roll my eyes at myself, my good mood tempered by how difficult this has been for me.
“So you throw in a few kisses.” He laughs, and I know he’s joking.
I need to choose my words carefully. I could sound all kinds of stupid if I don’t.
“My professor wants us to draw on our own relationships, and that’s not exactly my forte.”
I look away before I can see his reaction.Why am I telling him this?
“But you’ve been in a relationship before, right?” he asks hesitantly. Before I can respond, he shrugs. “I’m sure you could pull it off.”
Groaning, I take another bite. “Theoretically, that’s true. But my one significant relationship did not have a happy ending, and I don’t date. You know this about me.” I tear apart a piece of crust. “Based on the examples we’re reading, Professor Marceaux wants hot sex and a happily ever after. I don’t do either.”
The minute the words are out of my mouth, I regret saying them. Shit. I glance over, and he’s grinning. Then he cracks up laughing.
“Clementine, you surprise me. No one ever surprises me anymore.”
I look down, embarrassed.
He clears his throat. “Well, if it means anything, I think you could pull both off.”
“Pull what off?”
“Hot sex and the happily ever after,” he says with a wink.
* * *
Something is warm against my chest, and I have my arm wrapped around a body pillow that’s so snuggly, I think I moan.
Wait. I don’t have a body pillow.
I’m exhausted, and it takes a few seconds to open my eyes. When I do, I see a blue flannel shirt.
I am wrapped around Gavin’s body with my arm over his chest and my thigh over his. And what a body it is. In my early-morning haze, all I can think about are his hard pecs underneath me, and I really want to run my hands down over his abs.
It’s not that I mind being with him because he’s fucking hot, but I have no idea how I ended up in the nook of his arm with my head on his chest. I can’t get up, though, because the bed is so narrow that my back is against the wall. Glancing around the room, I’m relieved when I see the clock. It’s still early.
I try to disentangle myself without waking him, but he sighs deeply and stretches.
“Hey, good morning,” he says like finding me in his bed is normal.
“Hi.” What do I say?Thanks for the pizza and the snuggle, but I gotta go?No, that doesn’t sound right. I decide to be direct. “Gavin, how did I end up wrapped around you?”
He chuckles against me. I’m glad someone is amused.
“You fell asleep, and damn, girl, you’re a sound sleeper.” His voice is deep and scratchy and pretty damn sexy. He stretches again, his hard muscles flexing beneath me, and yawns. “I tried waking you up, twice, but then I gave up and rolled you over. As for being wrapped around me, I think it’s because I’m irresistible. You couldn’t resist even when you were practically in a coma.” His eyes close, and he’s wearing a self-satisfied smile.
My cheeks flame, and I shake my head. Why am I always embarrassed around this guy? It’s not like we had sex or anything. We’re fully clothed.
A nervous laugh escapes me. “It’s good to see you’re embracing your modesty this morning, but I have to get to work by nine.”
I start to sit up, but he grabs my arm and pulls me back to him, turning and snuggling into me.
“Has anyone ever told you that you look really cute in the morning, especially when you’re embarrassed? And God, you smell good.” He buries his face in my neck, his breath hot against my skin, and goose bumps break out on my arms. “You think you might want to go for a run with me later this weekend? Maybe tomorrow evening? I’m thinking I might be able to kick your ass, but I’d like to be sure.”
Laughing, I say, “You need to be careful what you wish for.”
And clearly, so do I.
* * *
Sneaking up the stairs to my apartment wearing yesterday’s clothes gives me a moment of pause.Maybe everyone is still asleep.I turn my key quietly and open the door to find Jenna and Harper.
“Thank God you’re okay,” Jenna yells as she rushes toward me, enveloping me in a hug.
Harper watches me with a raised eyebrow. “Do my eyes deceive me or are you doing the morning-after walk of shame?”
“Ha, Harper, ha!” I pry Jenna’s arms off me and ignore the heat rising to my cheeks. “Yes, I stayed at Gavin’s but only because I fell asleep on his bed, and no, we didn’t have sex.”
Jenna, who was looking so hopeful at the mention of Gavin’s name, deflates like a balloon. “There I was thinking he had popped your cherry.”
“Jesus, you’re getting as bad as Ryan.” Jenna likes to think of me as some kind of born-again virgin. “Yesterday we went climbing, and then we did homework. That’s it.”
“When are you going to give us some juicy details?” Jenna is pouting. “That boy is too delish for words, and this is all you have for us?”
“I thought you were madly in love with Ryan. Why are you scoping out Gavin?”
She cocks her head toward me, her messy ponytail hanging sideways. “Holy shit. You’re jealous!” Jenna giggles like a fool.
The bedroom door behind her opens, and Dani, our youngest roommate, stumbles out. Her thick, dark hair is twisted up into a bun. Hot pink tips stick out in a crazy disarray from her hair tie.
“What’s going on?” She rubs her eyes and before she surveys the three of us. “Hi, Clem.”
“Hi, Dani. Sorry we woke you.” I take off my jacket and reach into the mini-fridge for some OJ before I turn back to my audience. “As much fun as this has been, I have to go to work. I’ve been meaning to ask if you guys still have any textbooks you need. I have to buy them to get my discount, but you can pay me back.”
Dani looks suddenly very awake, but she stays quiet.
They shake their heads. I turn to Dani, who is fidgeting. She obviously wants something. I feel bad that I’ve hardly uttered two words to her since we’ve met. I should be friendly even though it’s not one of my noteworthy qualities.
“Dani, what do you need? Write it down, be specific, and include your cell number on it, so if I have any questions, I’ll call you, okay?”
She gives me a shy smile and nods.
After a quick shower, I get dressed and come out to find Dani’s note with a list of three textbooks.
“Hey,” Harper says over my shoulder, “that was nice of you to help Dani. A little unlike you, but nice. Clementine Avery, I think you’re showing your soft underbelly.”
“Shut up, slut. I’ll shank you in your kidney if you tell anyone about this.”
Harper’s laughter bursts through the apartment.
“Here I was thinking you’d gone soft.”
Maybe I have.
One thing is clear. This is a terrible idea.
I stare at Gavin’s text:Run with me tomorrow. I’ll even let you beat me.
Running is too personal. It would be like doing our laundry together when we only just met. Working out like that—side by side, measuring our strides to match one another and finding that perfect pace—is more bonding than I’m ready for.
Distance. I should create some distance.
I decline his offer. I even include a smiley face so I don’t sound bitchy, which frustrates me more because he has me using emoticons like a twelve-year-old.
After a long shift at work, made longer by random thoughts about Gavin, I try to buckle down and write, and although I have an outline, my characters don’t feel right. I’m missing something. I might be able to eke it out if the teaching assistant grades my submission, but once we get into critique groups, my peers will tear this up. Never mind that this will never cut it as material for a full-blown novel.
I’m so frustrated that I go for a jog. It’s dark outside, and I know it’s not smart to go alone, but my roommates are out, and I have too much pent-up energy. The moon is bright, and the sky is clear. I blast music and run until I’m numb.
As I slow to a walk when I reach my block, a flyer for Olivia catches my eye. Glancing up and down my street, I try to ignore the creepy sensation that I’m being watched and hustle to my apartment.
* * *
The next morning, Harper pokes her head into my room. “We’re headed to Ryan’s later. Want to come and do some laundry with me? Jenna is going to show Dani how to make those awesome grilled cheese sandwiches.”
“Ryan doesn’t mind that we use him for his washer?” Glancing at my overflowing hamper, I know I should take advantage of the offer.
“As long as we bring his girlfriend, I don’t think he cares.”
I agree, packing one load of dirty clothes along with my laptop and journal so I can work. Dani and I pile in the back seat while Harper drives, and Jenna takes shotgun. Harper mentions my book cover problem to Dani as we drive through campus.
“You don’t need a designer. I can do a cover for you,” Dani says as she roots around in her purse for some gum.
“Really? Because I suck at that stuff. Do you think you can track down a stock photo for it? Oh, and do you know anyone who designs websites? Mine is in serious need of a facelift.”
She unwraps the gum and pops it in her mouth. “I could take some pics for you, and I definitely have friends who could do your website.”
“That would be huge! I will totally pay you for the work you do on my cover.”
Dani shakes her head like the idea offends her. “No way. You’re my roommate. It’s, like, against the code or something.”
I glance at Jenna in the front seat, who nods like I’m an idiot for not knowing that Dani is so cool.
“Okay, if you’re not going to take my money, let me buy you some art supplies ’cause I know that shit is expensive.”
Dani smiles and offers me some gum. “Deal, but I want to read your book. Jenna says you’re a great writer.”
I kick Jenna’s seat in front of me, and she gives me the finger. I chew my lip as I think about it.
“All right, but you’re sworn to secrecy. I write under a pen name, and I don’t want that getting out. And when I say secrecy, we’re talking blood oath or I get your first child.”
Dani laughs but agrees, and we brainstorm different cover concepts. Ten minutes later, I’m feeling better about life.
“This is so huge, Dani. Thank you. My publicist has been on my ass to redo my cover and website for ages.”
Her eyes widen. “Wow, you have a publicist?”
“Since I’m an indie—I’m not with some big publishing company—I pay her by the service she provides, but she’s really good at getting blogs to review my book and helping me get traffic on my blog so people can read excerpts from other things I’m writing.”Like half-written books.I scowl at my inner cynic and return my attention to my roommate.
Dani and I talk non-stop until we reach Ryan’s, and then we each grab a load of laundry and trudge across the yard. As I amble up the steps to Ryan’s two-story house while trying to balance a basket of dirty clothes on my hip, the music hits me first—the Notre Dame fight song and cheering.
“Jenna,” I say slowly, “what game is on today?”
Her eyes widen as she processes why I’m asking.
“Oh, I think it’s Notre Dame and Stanford.” She smiles back reassuringly, but my heart is still racing. At least I’m not in full panic-attack mode. Those used to strike all the time for almost no reason at all. But I’m tired of Daren still qualifying as a reason.
When we walk in, Ryan comes up and plants his face on Jenna’s.
“Get a room,” I say as I push past them.
“That’s actually a great idea,” Ryan says, laughing.
“You two are like drug addicts. It’s too early in the day for tongue.”
“Clemster, it’s never too early for tongue. See, that’s why we need to get you a boyfriend.”
“If you weren’t dating my best friend, I’d take out your spleen for calling me that. Furthermore, I am not a tongue-in-front-of-my-friends kind of girl.”
Jenna pushes him off, giggling, and we drop our laundry in the hall. When I get to the living room, I’m surprised to see my brother.
“Hey, loser.” He gets up, and I hug him. “What are you doing here?”
Jax is always busy. I didn’t think he socialized with guys other than his teammates.
“Ryan invited me over last weekend, so I thought I’d stop by. Heard you girls were making lunch.”
“You came for the free food. That makes sense.”
He grins and sinks back down into the couch. The rest of Ryan’s band is here, including Kade the douchebag, which is his official name in my book. I turn and almost run into Gavin, who’s coming from the kitchen with a beer in his hand.
“Hey,” I say, surprised to see him.
Gavin smiles and gives me a hug. He does this like we’re old friends. I’ve never really thought much about hugs, but holy shit, this one feels good. I’m immediately flooded with thoughts of those washboard abs. As I press my face to his chest, he smells all kinds of yummy.
He whispers, “You left your Classical Lit notes at my place the other night. If I had known you were coming, I’d have brought them.”
That’s thoughtful.Butterflies swirl in my stomach like drunk sailors.
I lean back so I can see his face. He hasn’t shaved this morning, and his jaw is scruffy. Damn, he’s even hotter like this.
“I didn’t notice I’d lost them. Thanks for mentioning it.”
We’re talking, but he hasn’t let go of me.Is this weird?I still have one hand on his hip, and he has one arm around my shoulder. But friends hug, right? I mean, I just hugged my brother. Oh, but this is sonotlike hugging my brother. Gavin’s all warm and sexy, making me think about waking up nestled against him yesterday morning with my thigh wrapped around his.
As my resolve to stay away from him takes a nosedive, I’m suddenly aware that everyone is watching us. Panic rips through me, and I pull back, mumbling something about food and laundry and who knows what else.
I dart into the kitchen as Jenna and Dani start lunch, so I wash my hands and get out the supplies to help them. We bump around in a comfortable silence until Kade starts yelling.
“Clem! Come here!”
I hate Kade even more now that he’s seen my nipples. I don’t have a clue why he would need to speak to me, but I wander into the living room anyway. The guys are watching the half-time show, which features a preview of next weekend’s BC game.
“Isn’t this your boy?” Kade asks as a picture of one very attractive Daren Sloan, star quarterback, pops up.
I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to explain my connection to Daren, but obviously someone has. The segment features Daren’s recent engagement to his “high-school sweetheart” Veronica. I can’t help but laugh.
Kade pokes me, and I contemplate breaking that finger.
“Clem, aren’t you jealous? You could have married the guy who is probably going to be the number-one draft pick.”
I’m almost positive that Kade is going to hell, a thought that nearly puts a smile on my face.
Trying to stand tall, I do my best to seem unaffected. “If Veronica giving him blow jobs our senior year while he was dating me qualifies her as a sweetheart, then I’m a little mistaken about what that word means. And for the record, I’ve never regretted breaking up with him.” I feel blood pumping through the veins in my neck. “He still sends me tickets to his games. I bet Veronica doesn’t know that little detail. So really, they’re perfect for each other.”
Jax looks irritated. “He’s never told me he sends you tickets.”
“He’s your best friend. Maybe you should ask him about it.” I turn on my heel and head down to the laundry room.Breathe. Breathe.
* * *
My hands are still shaking ten minutes later as I start the load of whites. Or I’m trying to start the machine, but the button is stuck.
“Here. Let me help.” Gavin reaches over my shoulder and does this weird twisting motion to the switch, which makes the machine magically start. I must be out of it because I didn’t hear him come down the stairs.
“How did you know to do that? Do you do laundry here a lot?”
He’s still standing in my personal space.
“No, I don’t do laundry here, but it’s my house, so I have to deal with the appliance problems.”
He sees the confusion on my face and smiles. “It’s my grandmother’s house, or it was until she died a few years ago. My parents gave it to me, but since I have to live on campus, I rent it out. That’s how I met Ryan.”
“Oh, that makes sense.”
His eyes tighten and his head tilts.
“Are you okay? I’m sorry Kade is being a dick.”
He runs his hands through his thick, black hair, and it’s going every which way but still somehow looks great.
“I’m fine.” Although Kadeisbeing a bigger douchebag than usual. “I’m just not used to talking about Daren with anyone, so I’m surprised he knew.”
Gavin sighs and rubs his chin. “He’s going through some rough stuff right now.”
Because I don’t care what Kade is going through, I shrug.
He motions toward me. “That sounded kind of intense, what you said about Daren cheating on you.”
I nod, not really knowing how much I want to tell him, especially since he’s a reporter. But he wouldn’t write about something as stupid as my nonexistent love life, would he? Not when he covers serious topics?
He senses my hesitation and pulls me into a hug. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
Breathing in the scent of his clothes makes something in my heart ache. “There’s not much to say. It happened a long time ago.” I step back and look up at him warily.
He smiles back and nods. “Okay, well, lunch is ready, and Jenna said to get your ass up there.”
We start to walk back upstairs when he nudges me. “You wanna go climbing again on Friday?”
I don’t know if it’s his easy smile or the fact that he didn’t pressure me to tell him more about Daren, but it makes me want to trust him, so I tell him yes.
The corner convenience store is crammed with students hustling to get to class.
“I’ll have a cinnamon raisin bagel, light cream cheese and small coffee,” Jenna says, handing the guy behind the counter a ten.
“A banana and coffee.” I drop the piece of fruit into my messenger bag and hand over some cash.
“I hate Mondays,” I grumble, tired from spending half the night revising the copy on my website. Gagging in the aftermath of the sorority girls who walk by, I wave my hand in front of my face and whisper to Jenna, “And biatches who wear too much perfume.”
Jenna elbows me in agreement. “And girls who over-pluck their eyebrows so they always look surprised.”
Laughing, I link my arm through hers, and we make our way out onto the sidewalk and wait for the light to change.
I scrunch my face in disgust. “I hate sauerkraut and yappy dogs.”
“Yes! And thong wedgies because even though that scrap of fabric is supposed to be up there, it ain’t supposed to beup there.”
I try not to choke on my coffee as she lowers her voice and cocks an eyebrow.
“And I hate used condoms. The way they sit there all deflated and judgmental, like little reminders of the dirty sex you had the night before.”
I snort before I get a chance to cover my face. “Jesus, Jenna.”
We trudge across Commonwealth Avenue with the hordes of other students, and we’re about to make our way to the Liberal Arts Building when I hear a familiar voice in the distance. Before I realize what I’m doing, I yank Jenna behind a thick row of hedges. She squeals as her knees sink into the moist dirt, and her coffee tumbles to the ground.
“Shhh!” I put my finger over her lips as we huddle like escaped criminals behind a bush.
Over the shrubbery, I hear their steps. The girl’s giggle precedes her high-pitched voice. “Thank God you liked my submission. I was so worried it sucked.”
“It is simply breathtaking, love. I’m confident you’ll be able to publish it, but we can talk about it more after class, perhaps over lunch.” His voice wraps around me like a python constricting. I close my eyes as I try to catch my breath.
I wait several minutes so I can be sure they’re gone, and then, like a little gopher in one of those arcade games, I pop my head up over the shrubbery to survey the scene.
Satisfied the coast is clear, I inhale several times in relief before I extend my hand down to my roommate who has aWhat the fuck was that?expression on her face.
“I’m so sorry, Jenna! I heard Wheeler’s voice and reacted. I didn’t mean to shove you into the mud.”
She pats me on the back. “You haven’t seen him yet?”
“Not face to face, and I’m wondering if I can go the whole year without any meet-and-greets. I already had a close call at the bookstore. Do you think I stand a chance of avoiding him until graduation?”
Her mouth twists as she contemplates my question. She shakes her head. “That dog don’t hunt.”
I stare at her and blink. Ithinkshe means no.
There’s nothing like Jenna’s Southern wisdom, but that wasn’t the answer I was looking for.
* * *
When the week starts with leaping behind shrubbery, I know I’m in trouble. I fumble through the next few days, sleeping through my morning alarms and running late to classes and work. No matter how much coffee I drink or attempts I make to plan my schedule, I can’t seem to get my act together. Wheeler’s presence anchors me like lead, and I find myself always looking behind me, worrying if I’m going to see him again.
So all I can mumble as I stare at the red scribble in the margins of my assignment is, “It figures.”
A C? Marceaux gave me a C?
“I got a better grade on this than you?” Jenna snatches my submission for our romance-writing class, and the delight on her face is unmistakable. I shoot her a dirty look, and she sticks out her bottom lip like she’s sad, which I know is complete bullshit.
“Yeah, it’s official now. I’m a loser.” I knew this wasn’t right when I wrote it.
After flipping through the pages, Jenna sighs. “Her comments are pretty intense.”
Harper, who has been half listening to our conversation, shuffles out of her room and drops onto the couch. “What did Marceaux tell you?”
“That my writing feels stilted and repressed. That I need to loosen up.” I could have told her that. “But she’s not half as tough as our critique groups will be.”
Harper frowns. “That sucks.”
“I’m just not feeling it.”
Jenna jumps up and bolts into her room, calling out, “I have a great idea!” She returns with her phone and a second later my cell buzzes.
I glance down at my screen. “Jenna, why are you texting me when you’re three feet away?”
She smirks. “We’re going to play Out-skank.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“We’re gonna help you talk about sex. The point of the game is to see who can out-skank the other. Harper and I are going to send you dirty texts, and you have to write us back.”
“Where do you come up with this?” I’m shaking my head as I read her text out loud:I want you to touch my man-slinky.
I look up at Jenna and Harper, and the three of us crack up.
“You have to write me back. Or else.” Jenna waves her phone at me with a grin.
I roll my eyes.
I’ve never sexted, so I don’t know where to begin. Jenna has probably had tons of practice with Ryan.Gross.
Finally, I return the message.
Jenna reads it out loud:I would touch your man-slinky, but I don’t like jangly parts.
She looks up at me and laughs. “What?”
“Jangly. Penises are jangly,” I say as though this should be obvious. “They jingle and jangle. I mean, unless they’re erect. Ew. There’s a lovely word for you. Erect.”
“Hey, don’t knock it,” Jenna says. “Speaking of jingle and jangle, at Christmas I should sell mistletoe for the peen. Bet I’d make a killing.”
“You have a serious problem. I think you’re obsessed with your man’s junk.”
Jenna laughs before turning a serious shade of red. “Not as obsessed as he is with my girl parts. That boy is great at oral.”
Harper and I groan. I’m too embarrassed to say I’ve neither given nor received in the oral department. I am admittedly out of my league here.
“Maybe he could give Jonathan a few lessons,” Harper says under her breath.
At least I’m not the only one with issues tonight.
* * *
After the climbing wall on Friday—where I don’t tumble to my death, offering some hope that perhaps I’ve broken my streak of bad luck—Gavin and I grab some Thai and head back to his dorm room to work. We’re having a conversation about his journalism class, but all I can think about is how his t-shirt kept riding up while he was climbing, showing off that sexy-as-hell six-pack. And that little treasure trail leading south…
“You listening?” he asks as we reach his room.
“Oh, sorry, I was thinking about this horrible grade I got.” Lie. Lie. Lie. But Ihavebeen obsessing about that stupid assignment for the last twenty-four hours, so that might absolve me from being a total lunatic.
When we reach his room, I lament about my professor’s comments.
“Can I read it?” he asks, holding the door open for me. Shit. I never let anyone read my drafts except under extreme duress, like threats from professors or overly nosey roommates. He lifts his chin. “C’mon. I’m a writer. Maybe I can help.”
“I don’t know.” I raise an eyebrow. “You’re not in my circle of trust yet.”
He pretends to be in pain as he clutches his chest. “Ouch. And after we’ve slept together? Clementine, you’re hurting my feelings.”
“Shut up.” I smack him in the shoulder.
He tilts his head down, staring at me through those dark lashes, and makes sad puppy-dog eyes. Oh, hell. Who can say no to that face? I stick my finger in his chin dimple and sigh.
“Fine. Here.” I reach into my bag toss it to him before I can reconsider. “But I’m warning you. You can’t laugh at me. I’ve already told you I don’t write about this stuff.”
I grab some paper plates and serve our dinner as he sits at his desk and reads. I hand him his food and sit on the bed across from him.
During his silence, the axis of the planet shifts and then realigns as I watch him go through my draft. I don’t know why letting people read my writing makes me so anxious. And a little nauseous. Okay, a whole lot nauseous.
“This isn’t bad,” he says finally, “but can I make a suggestion?”
“I’m thinking about dropping the class, so go for it.”
“Okay, if this is a relationship between an RA and a girl on his floor, this makeout scene would never happen in the common room because it’s too out in the open. You need to make it happen somewhere more secluded.”
My eyebrows lift. “Make out with girls on your floor much?”
He laughs. “No, none, but you lived in Warren. Kids run in and out of the common room twenty-four seven. No RA who wants to keep his job is going to make out with anyone there.”
“I only lived in Warren for a semester. I don’t remember hanging out that much in the common room. It’s just where I got the idea to turn some dumb diary entries into a book. I wanted to get something constructive out of the hell I went through.”
He runs his tongue over his bottom lip. “So your stuff is autobiographical?”
Shrugging, I nod. “Loosely. I change the characters’ names and the settings and twist around a few details, but I get inspired by what I go through.”
He cocks his head and breaks out into one of those brilliant smiles.
“You, uh, you ever gonna let me read this mysterious novel?” He bats those eyelashes again, but even his nuclear level of sexiness can’t combat the nausea I get from the idea of Gavin reading my book.Gavin reading about how Daren cheated on me? With my best friend?My stomach flips.
“I’m thinking no.” I try not to look affected by his overt attempts to charm me.
His eyes narrow briefly before he whispers, “We’ll see about that.”
He grins, and I sense the wheels turning in his head.He likes the challenge.
Crossing my arms over my chest, I try to keep a straight face. We watch each other in a standoff, but then that devilish grin is back.
“Let’s go find somewhere more intimate for your scene.”
He grabs a basket of folded towels and reaches for my hand, pulling me out into the hall. I laugh as I get dragged because he’s acting like a crazy person.We zip down two flights of stairs and down another hall.
The laundry room is dark when we walk in, so he flips on the lights. A row of washers and dryers line both sides of the small room. He opens up a washer and dumps in his basket of clothes.
“Gavin, why are you washing clean laundry?” I can’t help the laugh that escapes.
He drops in a few quarters and starts the machine before he turns to me, grinning.
“I’m helping you getin the zone. Come here.” He wraps his hands around my waist, and I let out a surprised squeak when he lifts me up onto a washer.I can’t believe he just picked me up.Okay, that’s a stupid thought. He did carry me home two weeks ago.
His grip is firm on either side of me as he ducks down to look into my eyes. Even though I lean back, I can feel his minty breath on my face.
“Clementine, I want to warn you.” His voice is husky and deep. “I’m going to kiss you, and you’re going to like it. A lot. But I want to be clear that I’m not going to sleep with you, because I want you to respect me in the morning.” His mouth lifts up in a wry smile. “This is simply onefriendhelping out another. Okay?”
Wait. Is he serious?
He must sense my apprehension because he rubs his thumb softly across my cheek. “It’s just an exercise, to get you into your story. I promise.”
I laugh, embarrassed, intrigued, and a whole lot turned on by the idea. He smiles again, but this time it’s different. His eyes darken as his hands glide over my hips. My breath catches in my chest.
“Gavin, I don’t think—”
He rests a finger over my lips.
“I’m doing this in the name of academics. You need inspiration? You’re looking at it. Now shut up and let me kiss you.”
Pressing his hand on the small of my back, he pulls me to the edge of the washer and stands between my legs, my thighs now on either side of his hips. He runs his other hand behind the nape of my neck, and I think I’m having an out-of-body experience as his touch leaves a trail of flames in its wake. My mouth is dry, and all I hear is the sound of my heart hammering in my chest. But before I can overanalyze it, he’s so close I can barely breathe.
“By the way,” he whispers when we’re nose to nose, “you should remember that I’m alreadydating someone, so don’t get too attached.”
And with the reminder that he has a fake girlfriend, he puts his lips on mine before I can tell him he’s insane.
Gavin’s lips are soft, but firm, and my body reacts, my arms lifting automatically to wrap around his neck. My hands are instantly in his hair, and my mouth opens, gasping from having him up close and oh so personal. He uses the brief opening to swipe my lips softly with his tongue. As he presses in closer, I tighten my thighs on his hips.
Gripping my hair with his hand, he tugs my head back and delves deeper, stroking my tongue with his. And dear sweet Jesus, Gavin can kiss. I’m all kinds of turned on, my body a pulse, a beacon of exploding light. We make out a few minutes, kissing, alternating between these sweet, heartbreakingly slow kisses and hard ones that make me feel like I can’t get close enough to him.
I use this opportunity to run my hand along his chest, descending down his hard pecs and ridged abdomen. I knew he was built—I mean, I’ve seen plenty of his defined body when we work out—but touching him like this has me lightheaded.
And this is not me, losing myself in the moment, but I can’t seem to stop myself. Hell, I don’t want to stop myself.
The wash cycle stops, the machine stilling beneath me, and he pulls away, leaving me out of breath.
Gavin looks into my eyes, and I try not to shy away, but when he kisses my forehead gently, I melt all over again.
He clears his throat.
“So now, because RAs don’t like to get caught making out with girls on their floor, I’m going back up to my room. You should come up when the laundry is done so it doesn’t look suspicious, and let’s see if you can’t get a little more done on your assignment.”
With that, he steps back, and I’m under his microscope, his eyes passing over me again. He chuckles and leans into me and whispers, “By the way, you’re one hell of a kisser, Clementine.” Then he winks and walks out.
Oh. My. God.
* * *
After throwing the towels in the dryer, I can’t bring myself to go back upstairs. What the hell do I say to Gavin? Do I even return?Hell, yes!my little inner voice cheers. But I’ve never kisseda friendlike that before. I don’t think I even kissed Daren like that. And although Daren and I dated most of our senior year of high school, he never had me throbbing so hard it almost hurt.
Despite the increasing desire to hurl, after I fold the towels I head to Gavin’s room. When I get there, he’s engrossed in his article.
“Towels are dried and folded.” I put the basket back in his closet and walk over to the bed, reaching for my bag. “I’m gonna get going.”
He turns to me, his mouth tight. “Why? I thought you were going to write.” He gets up, comes over and grabs my shoulders. His head tilts down. “Did I offend you? I—”
“No, you didn’t.” Beyond that, I can’t speak. My mouth is open, but words don’t come out. I never understood the concept of someone kissing you senseless. Until now.
He laughs softly. “Clementine?”
“I didn’t mean to render you speechless. Here, sit down, darlin’. Eat something. I just realized I made you do laundry, and you hadn’t eaten yet.” He maneuvers me down onto the bed. I sit, obedient, because it’s possible I’ve had a stroke.
He hands me a plate of food and smiles, returning to work on his assignment as though his tongue wasn’t doing a tango in my mouth an hour ago.
After taking a few, slow bites, I begin to relax and reach for my laptop. Although I’m still trying to process tonight and the surprising desire I have to grope Gavin, the words are starting to flow, so I type a few ideas.
Rereading my draft, I can’t believe I turned in this turd. I kick off my shoes and open a new doc, working furiously for an hour before I close the laptop and lie back on the bed with my journal.
“How’s it going?” Gavin comes over and sits next to me, so I scootch over, turning to face him.
“Better, I guess. I won’t know until tomorrow when I read what I did tonight. You were right about the common room, though. How’s your article?”
His smile falters. “It’s fine. I just want to think about something other than a missing co-ed for a few minutes.”
“Are the cops any closer to figuring out what happened to Olivia?”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Not as far as I can tell. It’s becoming old news, which sounds terrible, but that’s how the media works. So I keep trying to find new angles to keep her story in the headlines.” He scrubs his face with his hands and sighs. “You want to take a break? Maybe watch a movie?”
“Here,” he says, passing me his laptop. “Pick something.”
I sit up and scroll through title after title on Netflix. “This is too much pressure. Help me.”
He reaches into his closet, pulling out a few pillows, and props them up behind us before he settles down next to me, so we’re leg to leg, shoulder to shoulder.
“Do you like horror?” He clicks through a list of scary films.
I shake my head. “I run a lot at night, and that might freak me out. Plus, although I have three roommates, I’m actually at home by myself a lot, so no scary movies.”
“Chicken. How about a John Hughes film?”
I’m not in the mood for a girly romance. I used to love those, but not anymore. “I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies.”
“Says the girl taking a romance-writing class.” He looks at me like I’m a foreign species. “I thought all girls liked chick flicks.”
When I shake my head, he scrolls through a few more titles. We finally agree onTheBreakfast Club, which isn’t too lovey-dovey. Fifteen minutes in, I need to editorialize.
“Can I be honest?” I ask. “I always thought Emilio Estevez was kind of a tool in this movie.”
“Can I also say that when I first saw this years ago, that little lipstick trick Molly Ringwald did seemed okay, but now I’m disappointed that her one skill is applying makeup with her boobs. It’s an insult to women.”
“Can you put on lipstick with your boobs?”
I turn and look at him. “I have no damn idea.” I look down at my chest and press my shoulders together to emphasize the girls. “I’ve never tried.”
When I glance up, he’s scoping out my rack, and I elbow him. He snickers as he says, “Maybe that’s a skill worth investigating before you criticize it.”
I feign concern. “But what if I’m not that talented? I don’t think I could handle that letdown.”
“I think you probably have all kinds of talents you’ve yet to discover.”
My face heats as I think about what he probably means, and he laughs.
We settle back into the movie, but halfway through the film, I can’t keep my eyes open. I’ve been up since six when I got up for a run because I was so anxious about my stupid story, and now it’s almost midnight.
“Gav, I’m falling asleep. I should go home.”
“Scoot.” He lifts my legs so now I can stretch out on his bed. “I have to write some more. Take a nap.”
I don’t argue with him. It’s a brilliant plan. I curl up on his bed, and he throws a blanket over me.
I’m not sure how long I’m asleep before I hear the light being clicked off, but I’m so tired that when he moves me over and wraps his arm around my waist, it barely fazes me.
“Clem, you smell really good,” he whispers into my ear.
My eyelids are heavy, and I start to wonder if I’m dreaming. “You kiss like a rock star.”
He laughs and pulls me tighter.
In the morning, my conversation with Jenna runs through my mind, and I think of that word.Erect. My professor’s directive to find fun euphemisms is now the only thing I can think about.Morning wood. Boner. Hard-on. Stiffy.
There’s nowhere to go. This morning, Gavin is draped over me. He’s like a freaking furnace, and his man parts are trying to poke a hole through my thigh. I try to wiggle out of his hold, but his eyes flutter open.
“Good morning, Clementine,” Gavin says, his throaty voice terribly sexy.
“Sorry if I woke you.”
I let my eyes adjust to the light. Clearing my throat, I mull over the question that’s burning on my tongue. “Gavin, so last night… you were just helping me… as a friend?”
“As a friend.” He’s wrapped around me, hard against my thigh, warm against my back, and nothing about this morning seems platonic.
“Can I ask… do you have a lot offriendsthat you, uh, help like this?”
He chuckles, his chest vibrating against me before he kisses my neck. “No, darlin’. I don’t really have time for many friends, especially since you’ll remember I have a girlfriend. I don’t want to spread myself too thin.”
I roll my eyes.
“Do you have to go to work?” he asks, yawning.
“Yeah, but I have to head home and shower first. If I come in wearing the same clothes I wore yesterday, someone will know I’m a slut who slept with you.”
He snickers. “You should go before you ravish me because then I’ll feel cheap.”
God, he’s such a flirt.
Laughing, I punch him playfully. “You’re incredible.”
“I know, but the next time you say that, you should add my name, like, ‘Gavin, you’re incredible,’ and maybe throw in a few moans. That would be hot.”
“Who are you?”
This guy is fucking with my head, and what’s worse is I think I like it.
I stare at the register and then look back at the girl on the other side of the counter. She drops her head forward, waiting for me to figure out my shit.
“Sorry. Yeah, you need change,” I mumble before I finish ringing her up.
This afternoon I’ve mis-charged three customers because my brain got sucked down a rabbit hole the instant Gavin’s lips touched mine. All day, I’ve debated whether he’s merely helping me write my assignment, or if he’s in any way serious about me. I’m not sure if I even want him to be serious because being with Gavin is like parachuting out of an airplane… without a parachute.
By the time I get to the student union to meet Jenna and Harper for dinner, it’s pretty empty with only a few students scattered around the enormous seating area. Dani joins us, and the four of us spread out at a table.
Jenna pulls out a spiral and a pen from her bag. “I need your help, girls. In my story, my main character has a list of ‘deal-breakers,’ things that would ruin a guy for her, and I’m stalling out.”
“That’s easy,” Dani says, twisting the top off her juice. “I won’t date anyone who wears loafers with tassels or loafers without socks. Or a guy who picks his teeth. Gross.”
“Oh, those are good!” Jenna scribbles in her notebook while I peel tomatoes out of my sandwich.
I have to think about it for a few minutes, but mulling over Professor Marceaux’s declaration about not using the f-word brings me to a realization.
“I hate when people say, ‘Let’s make love.’ It makes me cringe for some reason, the same way I hate guys with clammy hands or hairy chests. Yuck.” Gavin’s chest is fairly hair-free… except for that sexy trail on his lower stomach that leads south. He switched t-shirts at the gym the other day, and I nearly had a coronary.
I wedge a fallen piece of turkey back within the two slices of wheat bread and take a bite as Jenna laughs and scribbles. “You’re so right! If Ryan told me ‘let’s make love,’ I’d kick him in the gonads.”
Snorting out a sip of soda, Harper tries not to choke. “That’s kind of harsh, Jenna. Ryan might need those some day.”
Twirling her pen through her blonde hair, Jenna rolls her eyes. “Of course I’d never kick Ryan in the family jewels. Oh, you know what Ireallyhate?” Jenna cocks an eyebrow. “Crotch-scratchers, especially when they do it right in your face as though it’s not obvious they’re reaching for their frank and beans. What is it with guys adjusting themselves? You don’t catch girls randomly rubbing the vag.”
We’re laughing so hard a study group two tables down shoots us dirty looks that make us laugh harder.
“Save room for the chips and queso, ladies,” Jenna says, jumping up to get some napkins and a soda refill. She’s decided to turn this into a girls’ night, which is sounding better and better.
As I watch her cross the cafeteria, Wheeler strolls in. My mouth goes dry and my heart pounds. Flying into panic mode, I search for a hiding place, but I don’t have time because he’s already seen me.
The girls see my expression and turn to look.
“Who’s that?” Dani asks.
I clear my throat, hoping the few bites I’ve eaten don’t come back up. “My old professor, Jason Wheeler.”
“He doesn’t look old.”
Clad in jeans, a button-up and a black blazer, he looks like a J. Crew model.
“He’s not. He’s thirty.”
“He’s really cute.” Dani tilts her head while she watches them. “But should he have his arm around that girl? She looks like a student.”
Harper looks at me for a split second before she answers. “That’s kind of what he does. Have you seen him recently, Clem?”
“No.” I swallow to quell my nausea. “I’ve seen him, but he hasn’t seen me.”Because I’ve hidden.And dragged Jenna down into the dirt with me. And threatened a co-worker with bodily harm.
And now he’s walking straight toward us.Fuck.
“Clementine Avery.” My name. That’s all it takes to suck the air out of my chest. “So good to see you, love. How have you been?”
Fine, since you stopped stalking me, asshole.
I take a deep breath.
“I’m well, Jason. And yourself?” My voice sounds confident, which surprises the hell out of me. I glare back at him, and he smirks. My stomach is roiling with a rush of adrenaline. It’s a bitter cocktail of hatred, fury and fear.
“Very well. I’ve been teaching in London for the last two years,” he says pointedly, “and working on my new novel, which I think you’ll appreciate.” A shadow seems to cross his face, and I shiver. “This is my new protegée, Briget. She’s working on a brilliant book right now. It’s fabulous. Similar to your novel, but with more depth.”
Ah, he’s here to insult me.
Turning to Briget, I ask, “Has he told you what he’ll want for his services?” I really don’t want to mess with this guy, but he’s being such an arrogant prick, and the words are out of my mouth before I can stop myself.
Brigit toys with a lock of her short black hair as she appraises me.
Wheeler’s eyes harden. I never noticed how cold his eyes were until it was almost too late.
“Well, this has been lovely,” he says, breaking the silence. “It’s good to see you. You should come by during office hours so we can… catch up.” His eyes narrow on me as he speaks, and I can’t fight the chill that crawls over my skin. Then he puts his hand on the girl’s back and ushers her away.
I blink several times to clear my blurring vision.
“What the hell is he thinking?” Harper whispers as we watch them disappear out the back of the cafeteria.
I don’t know. And that scares the hell out of me.
* * *
When we get back to our apartment, I beeline it to my room and change into a pair of sweats and a tank top. It’s been half an hour, and I’m still trembling.
I trudge into the living room and am surprised to see Ryan and Gavin on the couch. Jenna is in Ryan’s lap, and Dani is fiddling with the TV.
“I didn’t know you guys were here.” God, I really need to be more observant.I would have put on more clothes,I think, noticing my hot pink bra strap hanging off my shoulder. I have my roommates to thank for my sudden increase in sexy underwear. That candy necklace game on my birthday got me one big-ass box of Victoria’s Secret.
Shrugging up the strap, I return to my room and throw on a flannel shirt, but my hands are still shaking too badly to button it up. I give up and walk back out.
“Why is everyone upset?” Ryan asks.
“How do you know we’re upset?” Harper, our in-house shrink, is always curious to see how someone’s brain works.
“Because you told Jenna you wanted to do facials, and you have an armload of girlie comfort food. Chips and queso, right?”
“Damn it, he’s good,” Harper mutters, taking the cheese out of the convenience store bag and popping it into the microwave. “We had a rough night. We ran into Professor Dickhead, and he tried to talk to Clementine.”
Ryan’s brows knit on his forehead. “But doesn’t she have a restraining order on him? Can he do that?”
I rub my throbbing temple. “Guys, no one cares about this crap. Let’s change the subject.”
“I care.” Gavin’s voice cuts through the awkward silence. “What happened? Who’s this guy with the restraining order?”
“I’ll explain,” Jenna says, sensing my discomfort. She looks to me to make sure I’m okay with this, and I shrug.
She takes a deep breath as though she’s trying to decide where to start. “Clem was in Professor Wheeler’s writing class freshman year, and he helped her edit her first book that fall. He was great at first, really encouraging and positive. But we all know Clementine is beautiful, and he fell for her, hard.”Ugh. Must she embellish?“But our girl wasn’t interested. She thought of him as a friend, a mentor. When he wouldn’t take no for an answer, he started stalking her—waiting outside her dorm at night and lurking in the alley. Totally creepy shit.”
I sit in a chair and try to focus on my breathing to stave off a panic attack.
Jenna waves her hand. “So this went on for a while until one night when he decided he had waited long enough.”
Swallowing back the lump in my throat, I look down at my fuzzy socks, carefully avoiding Gavin’s stare.
Jenna sighs with relief. “Fortunately, Wheeler didn’t rape her, but she got pretty banged up. By the time the cops got there, he was gone. The worst part is that police said they couldn’t do anything but put a restraining order on the asshole because Wheeler claimed he was with his parents, who vouched for his whereabouts. Without any evidence, the dean’s hands were tied too. Wheeler’s family basically built that new wing on the library, and you know how things like that always work out. He was on sabbatical for a while, but just returned this fall. And the restraining order has expired, but since he has no criminal record and has exhibited ‘good behavior,’ the cops won’t renew it.”
Hearing Jenna tell it with her Southern drawl, it almost doesn’t soundthatbad. I lift my head, and all of my friends are staring at me.Okay.Judging by everyone’s expressions, I guess it does sound bad.
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m fine.” I blow a strand of loose hair out of my face.
“Your parents must have been so upset,” Dani says.
I don’t miss the look that Harper and Jenna share.
Laughing weakly, I shake my head. “My parents didn’t give a shit. I doubt they even listened to my messages.”
Gavin runs his teeth over his bottom lip as he studies me. “Is that why you stopped coming to class? Just before winter break of our freshman year?”
I nod slowly, my eyes dropping to the floor. “I took a leave of absence.”
“Is it hard, seeing him around campus?” Dani asks quietly.
“He avoided me that spring when I came back, thanks to the restraining order, and then he left to teach abroad. This is the first time I’ve seen him since freshman year.”
“And he waltzed up to you tonight like nothing happened?” Ryan asks, incredulous.
“You know what I can’t stand about him?” Harper asks. “How he smells. It’s kind of a sweet cologne.” She makes a gagging sound.
“It’s not a cologne. He smokes clove cigarettes. Even if I had liked him, that would’ve been a deal-breaker.”
Harper says, “Oh, and he has a new girl. She’s young. Looks like a freshman. Of course.” The more Harper talks about it, the more pissed she sounds. As my roommate that spring, if anyone remembers what I went through, the nightmares I had, she would. “Someone should warn her that he’s a psycho.”
“I thought you didn’t like to toss around that word,” I say. She’s always lecturing us about casually using clinical terminology.
“In this case, it’s probably accurate.”
* * *
Gavin hugs me on the way out. As I pull away, he stops me, his hands on my shoulders. “You shouldn’t run at night. It’s not safe. Promise me you won’t do that.” I roll my eyes. “Clementine…” He says it slowly, like a warning.
“Fine. I won’t run at night.” Jeez.
He still has his hands on my arms, and I’m waiting for him to let go. Instead, he pulls me to him and kisses my forehead.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he says, turning to walk out behind Ryan, who has decided to get Jenna a Taser because Wheeler has him freaked out.
When I turn around, Jenna, Harper and Dani are staring at me.
“So, are you guys, like, dating?” Dani asks.
“Yeah, I’m kind of curious myself,” Jenna says, smiling.
I don’t know the answer. He did say he was only helping me write my story.
“We’re just friends.” That’s the safe answer.
Jenna scoffs. “Girl, what I saw was not a ‘just friends’ kind of look.” Fanning herself, she waits for me to explain.
I follow the grain of the hard wood floor with my toe. “We’ve been studying together. That’s it.”
Jenna grabs my arm and yanks me to the couch, dragging me down to sit next to her. “We need details, Clem. You’ve been holding out on us.”
Harper and Dani scurry over to join us.
“There isn’t too much to tell. We’ve gone climbing a couple of times, and he’s given me some suggestions on my story.”
“You showed him your writing?” Harper looks shocked. She knows I don’t show anyone my work, especially early drafts.
I nod, and her eyes widen.
“I only showed him that draft I turned in to our romance class. He’s a writer, too, and since he works as an RA, he’s had some really good insights into some of my plot issues.” The girls look confused, so I explain the general premise of my book. When I’m done, their faces are still scrunched.
“But you’ve also stayed over there, too, right? What, twice?” Harper asks.
“And don’t forget the night he stayed here.” Taking count, Jenna is holding up three fingers.
“Before you get all excited, we literally just sleep.”
Harper and Jenna look at each other and laugh as though I’m lying.
“Why do I get the sense there’s something you’re not telling us?” Jenna asks. “Come on, Clem, spill it! I can see it in your face. You’re a terrible liar.”
Since I don’t date, I don’t ever have any juicy stories. The last time I talked about kissing a boy, it was Daren. And the friend in whom I confided, Veronica, was busy hooking up with him behind my back. I swallow back a rush of unexpected emotion and try to explain what’s going on with Gavin.
“Okay, somethingdidhappen last night, but when you hear the whole story, you’ll see he was merely helping me with my assignment.”
Now they’re totally confused. I reach for a cold nacho and reluctantly share how he was helping me connect with my characters and get into their mindset when we made out in the laundry room. I add that when he asked me to go climbing with him he had emphasizedas friends.
“Holy shit, Clementine.” Jenna jumps up off the couch and does a little victory dance like she crossed the finish line of a race. “He likes you! Like, a lot!”
“No, he doesn’t,” I snort.
“Gavin Murphy has a legion of groupies who come to the shows, and he’s never really shown any interest in them. But when he talks to you, he looks like a starving man eyeballing a steak.” She stares at me as she taps her chin with one finger. “It probably doesn’t hurt that he saw you naked.” She giggles and shimmies suggestively.
“What? When did this happen?” Harper asks.
Shooting Jenna a dirty look for bringing it up only makes her laugh harder.
I blow out a breath. “It wasn’t deliberate. I walked out of the shower and nearly killed myself on Ryan’s skateboard, and my towel fell. And I wasn’t completely naked. I was wearing boy shorts.”
Talking about all of this makes my heart race, and I start biting my nails.
Harper grabs my other hand. “Okay, guys, let’s leave Clem alone. She looks like she wants to crawl under the couch.” When I glance up, she’s is grinning. “Relax. He seems like a great guy, and you’re right. You guys are probably just friends. This is good!”
She’s in clinician mode. I can tell by her voice that she’s trying to not scare me.
It’s too late.
Popping a pill is so tempting.
My hands shake for an hour after I get up on Sunday morning. I haven’t had a nightmare in over a year, but seeing Wheeler yesterday has churned up my worst fears: his hands tightening on me, those words he growled in my ear, the terror that I wouldn’t be able to stop him. And the worst part—not being able to scream. Instead, the panic coils in my gut, writhing like a snake that can’t strike.
The pills help me relax and detach, but I want to get there on my own. The downside of the meds is my lack of feeling, how numb they make me. Maybe it’s good to feel, even if it’s to be afraid. At least it’s real.
I lace up my tennis shoes because, if I’m not going to medicate, only one thing can help me off the ledge. And like a soothing balm, each stride helps melt the fear.
In the afternoon, as I’m stepping into my room after my hour-long run, my phone rings.
“What are you doing?” Gavin doesn’t say hi. I don’t know why, but this makes me laugh.
“I’m waiting for Harper to get home so she can help me with some homework.” As I kick off my shoes, I reach into my drawers to grab a change of clothes.
“What do you have to do?”
“You had to ask.” I groan. “Don’t laugh, okay?”
“I won’t. What is it?”
“Applied math.” I’m waiting for him to make fun of me. After all, I’m a senior taking a freshman course.
“You’re in luck. I’m great at math. I’ll help you with math if you proof my new article.”
“That doesn’t seem like a very fair tradeoff. You haven’t seen how much I suck at math.”
“It’s okay. I help all the kids on my floor. We’ll pretend it’s another scenario in your book.”
Warmth spreads in my belly.
“Ah, so mybook boyfriendis coming over totutorme? Why didn’t you say so?”
He’s grinning. I can tell. “Exactly. So it’s almost as though you don’t need the help at all. Your character does. What’s her name anyway?”
“Samantha. The RA is Andrew.”
“I think I should get a hotter name, like Ian or Aiden.”
“Hold the phone, Romeo,” I snort. “These arefictionalcharacters. I happen to get inspired by life, but it’s not like I directly transcribe my conversations with people straight into my stories.”
“Whatever you say, Clementine. Only make sure you include the part where you say I kiss like a rock star.” He’s laughing. Grateful he can’t see my embarrassment, I drop my head into my hand. “I’ll be over in ten.”
“No, give me half an hour. I just ran and need to take a shower.”
“See, that’s too much information. All yourbookboyfriendis going to do is fantasize about that for the next thirty minutes. That and those little black shorts.”
My face must be scarlet right now. “What black shorts?”
“The ones you were wearing when you flashed me.”
I nearly drop the phone.
“You make it sound like I did that on purpose. I didn’t know you were in my apartment. I tripped. The towel fell.”
“And it fucking made my year, darlin’.” He pauses, and I don’t have anything to say to fill the silence. “I’ll see you in half an hour.”
When we get off the phone, I’m grinning like an idiot.
* * *
Gavin follows me to get my books. “You unpacked,” he says as his eyes scan my room. The boxes are gone, finally.
I glance around, hoping I didn’t leave anything embarrassing out. My bed is made, my purple comforter tucked under two down pillows. On my beech desk sits my laptop, a small stack of textbooks, a short silver vase with a handful of blue and black pens, and a framed photo taken last winter of Jenna, Harper and me, arm in arm as we huddle in the snow.
He leans in to read some of the Post-Its on my cork board, and my heart beats a little faster.
“Favorite quotes?” he asks.
“Yeah, I know they’re silly, but I can’t seem to part with them.”
He’s quiet, his eyes skimming across the rainbow of squares. Reaching out, he touches my favorite. I swallow, wishing he hadn’t stopped on that one.They slipped briskly into an intimacy from which they never recovered.
He smiles over his shoulder. “I love F. Scott Fitzgerald too. Which book is your favorite?”
“This Side of Paradise.”
“Most people sayGatsby, but I have to agree with you.”
It would be so much easier to ignore how attractive Gavin is if he didn’t love my favorite book.
As he steps back, I reach over the desk and grab my assignment.
“I have an idea. Pack up your stuff,” he says.
I stop, taken aback by how sexy he looks leaning against my chair. His dark hair is going every which way, and his tall, muscular body fills my vision.
Finally, I regain the ability to speak. “I thought we were going to study.”
He tugs on the hem of my t-shirt. “We are, but we can kill two birds with one stone. Let’s go to the library. I have a scenario for your book.” He grins, making stupid little flutters ripple in my stomach.
“Can we do my math first? I might not be able to concentrate after you tryhelpingme with my book.” Part of me is embarrassed to admit that, but it’s the truth.
He laughs, nodding, but the heat in his eyes makes my blood pulse faster.
Once we’ve worked on my math assignment on the main floor of the library for an hour and a half, I pack my stuff and lay my head on my bag. Concentrating with him looking over my shoulder every ten seconds has been unnerving, but at least I finally understand the work.
“See,” he says. “Not so bad. I told you I’m a good tutor.”
“It’s true. You are. And very modest.”
“Modesty is overrated. C’mon.”
I’ve only barely grabbed my bag when he reaches for my other hand and pulls me up.
“Where are we going?”
“The stacks.” He turns to wink at me before he drags me like a little rag doll.
“Baby, you haven’t made out until you’ve made out in the stacks.”
I try to stifle my laugh, but I still get a dirty look from a librarian.And he just called me baby.Gavin pulls me into the elevator so hard that I stumble right into him. I’m about to apologize for being a klutz when he wraps his arm around me as he reaches over to push the button for the fourth floor.
“You’ve never heard of the stacks? Really?”
Ignoring my heart rate, which has accelerated like it’s doing a lap at the Indy 500, I shake my head. “No, never. What is it?” He smells so good. This close, it’s intoxicating.
“It’s where the library stores its main collection, but it’s also where all of the hot makeout sessions happen on campus. I’m guessing an illicit affair with your scorching hot RA should have at least one hookup in the stacks.”
He smirks, and those dimples come out in full force.
“So now you’re my ‘scorching hot RA’?” I attempt a look of incredulity, but it’s tough when I’m wrapped up in his arms.
“Yeah. That’s me. And you’re my innocent little freshman who is dying to get in my pants.”
And there’s a total look of satisfaction in his face that makes me want to take down him down a peg or two.
So I laugh. “What else do I want to do to you?”
He looks down, a mischievous grin spreading. “I don’t know, but I’m eager to find out.”
I don’t have a chance to respond because as the doors open, Gavin grabs my hand and pulls me through a few aisles, and we twist and turn until we’re in what must be the farthest corner of the library.
“These are the stacks.” He reaches out one hand as though he’s making a formal introduction, and I’m about to ask what the big deal is when he turns around and pushes me up against the wall.
I gasp, surprised.
His hand pins me above my heart, which is pounding as he leans in so close I can feel his breath.
He pauses and raises his eyebrows, and I know what he’s asking.
I only need the briefest of moments to realize I’m not scared, not with him, not now, and I give him a small nod before his mouth crashes into mine and we pick up where we left off in the laundry room.
I’m immediately lost in his touch and taste. Gavin runs his hand along my back before he fists my hair, and my heart thunders in my chest.
He has the most amazing lips, the kind I want to bite. And in the spirit of inspiration, I decide I should.
I break the kiss long enough to take his bottom lip between my teeth. I look up at him as I gently tug, and I’m glad that he has his arm wrapped around my waist because the scorching look he gives me makes me weak.
He pulls back and stares, his thumb lightly brushing over cheek. Our breaths mingle in the short distance between us, the sound of each intake of air filling the silence.
Suddenly, he growls and pulls me closer, parting my lips with his tongue. The slight stubble on his chin rubs my face, and I run my hands up his broad shoulders and through his hair, pulling him tighter. He grabs my waist, and I’m in the air for a split second before I land on top of a small bookshelf. He nestles in between my thighs, and I yank on his shirt, wanting him closer.
Wrapping my legs around him, I press myself into his hard body as my nails score down his back. He grabs my ass and rocks against me, and I can’t help the moan that escapes me.
I don’t know how long I’m adrift in his kiss, but as I begin to wonder how smart this is, making out in the library, we’re interrupted.
“Ahem.” The sudden sound makes me jolt back, and I turn to see a very irritated librarian with a cart of books he apparently needs to shelve. I laugh as Gavin slides me off the bookcase. He grins as he grabs my hand, pulling me behind him as we run down the aisle and back into the elevator.
I’m still breathing hard from our little makeout session and laughing from getting caught when he turns and anchors me against the wall with his hip, bracing his hands on either side of me. Judging by what’s pressed up against my stomach, I’m not the only one turned on.
“Uh, you excited to see me?” I say coyly.
“You have no fucking idea.” He leans down and gives me the sweetest, softest kiss before he breaks away when the door opens to the main floor.
* * *
I sit at my desk, thinking about how to capture what happened in the library. I touch my lips, which are swollen from having my mouth pressed against Gavin’s like my life depended on it. Trying not to overanalyze what’s happening between us, I focus on channeling the emotion of being with him. His touch. His delicious scent. His smile. I close my eyes and allow myself a reprieve from my cynical inner voice and try to enjoy the rush of the last few times we’ve hung out.
When I open my laptop, the words begin to flow, and I can see my characters—how they fall in love, their sweet embraces, their impassioned stares. It’s like my head has been uncorked, and everything is tumbling out so fast, my fingers can barely keep pace. It’s exhilarating, and my heart races with the possibilities.
It isn’t always this hard. Well, that’s not exactly true. I started writing as a form of therapy so I could deal with all the bullshit of breaking up with Daren. When I wrote my first book, I knew how it would end, how the characters would evolve, and roughly how they’d get there. This is different. I don’t know where this story will go, a thought that briefly douses my elation.
Somewhere around 4 a.m., I collapse in bed.
The alarm the next morning is painful. When I dress for class, I realize I’ve probably spent the last twenty-four hours obsessing over Gavin so I can write. I can feel it already, how I open up to him, how he gets me to take chances, how I’m willing to go outside my comfort zone for him.
This is dangerous. I could get hurt.
I keep waiting for the panic to set in, the panic that has tortured me throughout college and kept me from getting close to anyone. For once, it doesn’t.
The edges of the leaves are starting to change. In a few weeks, the street will be full of wild, chaotic color. Even the air this morning is crisp. It won’t be long before I’ll need to wear more than a light sweater or hoodie. The thought makes me frown because I don’t have money to go shopping.
When I reach for my mail, I see Student Accounting Services Office on the top envelope. My fingers hesitate at its edges.No, rip it off, like a Band-Aid.I tear through one side and pull out the letter. My eyes skim over the words until I find what I’m looking for. I have to take a deep breath when I see the amount because right now there’s no way in hell I can afford it.
Money wasn’t an issue when I chose this school. I loved the campus and the programs and the fact that it was so close to Boston College and Daren. Between a few academic scholarships and my track scholarship, I almost had a full ride. My parents seemed pleased with my plans when I told them I wanted to attend Boston University, so I never thought I’d be scrounging to pay tuition every few months.
But that was before my father left for that European merger and decided that living on another continent was better than living with us. Before my mother had that meltdown because I wouldn’t model her clothes. Before both of them forgot I existed.
The ache in my chest reminds me that I still care too much.
They taught me how to shut out people. How to be cold. Shut off. Distant. Apparently, being a bitch is my only inheritance.
When I get to work, I find a mountain of invoices to process. Somewhere in my dreary afternoon, I step out of the office and run down to Starbucks, which is nestled in the corner of the first floor, next to the Barnes & Noble.
The guy behind the counter is new. He reminds me of a cocker spaniel, all perk and happiness as he hunts and pecks on the register. When his trainer Sarah sees me, she pushes the kid out of the way to take my order.
“The usual, Clem?” Sarah asks, her ponytail bopping on her head.
“Yeah, thanks.” I reach over the counter to grab my coffee. “By the way, your team did a great job last week selling the promo drink. You’ll be entered in the raffle for the gift card.”
“Cool!” she says with a big grin.
“There you are.” My manager Roger waves for me to follow him. He has a major crinkle in his brow, so I’m wondering what got broken. I make sure the lid on my drink is secure and run to catch up, but instead of leading me to the home department that has the glass knickknacks that are always getting smashed by the dumber-than-fuck frat boys, he leads me to Barnes & Noble. When he stops, I do a double take.
On the new shelf reserved for indie favorites sits my novel. Until now, I’ve only sold ebooks, so seeing the actual hard copy in a store is making me drunk with glee, but I try to stay calm.
Running my fingers over the glossy purple cover ofSay It Isn’t So, pride swells in my chest. I got it done, in print and in stores. Well, a few stores. I touch the book again, my thumb running over the letters like they’re little gold nuggets. I don’t care what people say online. I still love the cover. The broken heart locket was mine, and nothing can symbolize what happens in my story any better.
“I can’t keep these on the shelves,” he says as he taps on my book.
It takes me a second to realize he’s not just talking about my novel, that he’s referring to all of the titles in the indie section.
“This was a damn good idea, Clem,” he says. “I’m glad you suggested it.”
I had the good luck of tutoring Macy, the owner’s daughter last semester, and when we got talking about books, I mentioned the need for an indie shelf at the bookstore. And Imighthave shared my favorite titles with her, one of whichmaybewas my own.
But she didn’t know it was mine. And neither does my boss who’s staring at it.
Unease takes root in my stomach.Is it possible Roger found out?
My boss scratches his belly absentmindedly.
Trying to appear casual, I school my expression. “Um, how do you know I suggested it?”
He grins like he’s in on some big secret. “Because Macy’s dad told me.” He taps the shelf. “And since the titles are such a hit, I’d like to get a few of these authors to come for a book talk next month. I’ve heard back from everyone except the publicist for Austen Fitzgerald. With the best sales in the city, you’d think she’d give me the time of day.”
The frustration in his voice makes me feel guilty, but I can’t tell him the truth, that I’m Austen Fitzgerald, a pseudonym I came up with by combining the names of my two favorite writers, Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
My publicist hates me because I won’t interact with fans beyond Twitter and a few social networks, but I’ve put too much of myself in that book to lay claim to it publicly. I figure that’s why I pay her, but apparently not enough because she should call Roger back or at least let me know what he wants.
I’m relieved it’s selling, though, because I have to scrounge up a crapload of cash to pay the tuition bill that threatens to kick my ass out on the street.
I motion toward my book. “Let me try calling her publicist. At the very least, maybe I can get some signed copies.”
“Good idea!” Roger is only forty, but he marches around here like a grandpa, always worried about sales and figures and schedules. “Corporate is crazy about you. They want you as a full-time manager when you graduate.”
“I thought they only hired MBAs for those positions.”
“That’s true, but they love all of your suggestions and how you incentivize the staff.” He tilts his head. “I’ve been meaning to ask why no one ever calls in sick on your shifts.”
I smirk. “I tell them if they call in sick, I’m going to fire them and they’ll end up working as a media assistant setting up overhead projectors and presentations for classes, but they’ll screw it up and everyone will laugh at them, which will eventually give them a complex that will require intensive psychotherapy.”
He crinkles those eyebrows again, obviously unsure whether I’m telling the truth. I shake my head and laugh.
“Roger, I buy them shit every month they’re on time. Out of my own pocket. Sometimes it’s from the gift cards I get from those efficiency rewards corporate sends out.”
I’ve had practice with that sort of stuff. Like the online raffles I do for free giveaways of my book and autographed bookmarks that feature the cover of my novel. I even write people personalized notes as some of the characters in my story. Fans seem to love those the most. One woman even sent me a new locket after I blogged about how my broken necklace ended up on the cover.
His eyes widen. “You spend your own money? Really?”
“Yeah, but usually the kids are happy taking home the crap we give away after a promotion is over, so it’s not so bad. It’s better than dealing with their bullshit when they have hangovers.”
He scratches his head. “Can I clone you?”
I pat him on the shoulder. “I’m not sure that technology is available yet, so you’re going to have to settle for a box of signed books from Austen what’s-her-name.”
Roger smiles, and the wrinkle in the middle of his forehead smoothes.
“How do you know so much about business and marketing?”
Debating how much to tell him, I opt for vague. “My parents own a few businesses, and I paid attention.”
“Hmm,” he says thoughtfully. “Anything I know?”
“No.”Um, probably,I think, watching a couple of sorority girls decked out in clothes from my mother’s fashion line saunter by with the brand name emblazoned on their asses.
On my way home, I’m still floating from seeing my novel in the store when I get a dirty text from Jenna. Relieved no one can see this over my shoulder, I laugh at her message:I’m hard for you, baby. Come relieve the pressure.
I have to think about this for longer than is probably necessary.
Finally, I write back:Should I use my hand or mouth?
Good lord, I can’t believe I sent that to someone. Where in the world did she learn how to play this stupid game? Out-skank. We should box up this idea and sell it as a drinking game.
Gavin texts me, asking if I want to study later this week. Thinking about him turns my insides to liquid. Molten liquid. Those green eyes. Those damn long lashes. Ugh, those lips. I’m mid-fantasy about making out with him in the library when Jenna sexts me again. I’m so busy being aghast at her naughtiness that I nearly plow through a group of professors.
After a few apologies to the elderly gentlemen I nearly trampled, I write her back:I want to lick your body up and down.
A minute later, I get another text from Gavin:Really? And where would this licking begin exactly?
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
I just sexted Gavin.
I have to close my eyes to regain my equilibrium. Smacking my forehead with my palm for being such an idiot, I rifle off a quick text to Gavin to explain my roommate’s insistence that we play this stupid game.
He writes back:Haha. I didn’t have you pegged as a sexter. But if you need practice, baby, I’m always available ;)
Mental note: Must not space out when sexting.
* * *
Being surrounded by the smells and sounds of the library is making it difficult to concentrate. All I can think about is making out with Gavin in the stacks, his lips on mine, his hands running along my back and in my hair, the way he tastes, how my body aches when we fool around…
“Earth to Clem!” Harper whisper-shouts. My eyes shift to her, and the look of exasperation catches me off guard.
“Sorry, I can’t seem to focus here.” I give her an apologetic smile. Right now, I don’t even think I can spell my name.
“You love studying in the library,” she says, her face twisted in confusion.
I’m usually the epitome of efficiency when I’m here, but now that I’ve groped Gavin among the books and felt his hands all over me, homework is the last thing I want to think about. God, he’s so—
She snaps her fingers in my face, making me jump.
“There you go again. What’s going on?” She taps her pen as she waits for my answer.
Before I can respond, I hear a familiar voice behind me that makes my heart race.
“Hi, ladies.” Gavin places his hands on both sides of my chair and leans in to kiss my cheek. Oh shit. My stomach does a free fall out of my body.
Harper says hi as a wide smile spreads across Jenna’s mouth.
“Hey, Gavin, just trying to help Clem with this problem,” Jenna says, pointing to my newest math dilemma, “but she can’t seem to concentrate. It’s like all of a sudden the library distracts her.”
I hear him chuckle behind me.
“Hmm. We got a lot of work done here the other day,” he says with amusement in his voice.
I brave a look at Jenna, and she raises one eyebrow. “Then maybe you should join us so she’ll pay attention.” I glare at her, and she smirks. “You should know that Clem doesn’t do public displays of affection, so if you got anything more than a hug out of this girl, you deserve an award.”
I kick her under the table, and she yelps.
Jenna is right, though. I don’t do PDA, or at least I never did before Gavin sauntered into my life. I never let Daren kiss me in public. In fact, I barely let him hold my hand.
Gavin squeezes my shoulder. “As much as I’d like to join you guys, I could use your editing skills.”
The seriousness in his voice catches me off guard. I momentarily forget my embarrassment and turn to find him looking unusually tense. His hair is in disarray as though he’s been running his hands through it all day. It reminds me of what he looks like first thing in the morning, which makes me think about kissing him. And having him press up against me in the stacks. And how I’d like to do that again. Soon.
He slides a few sheets of paper in front of me. “Would you mind proofing this? My deadline is in an hour, and I have another story to cover.”
It takes me a second to shake off my lust-filled haze, but I agree and reach into my bag for a pen.
“I need to make a phone call, but I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he says. I nod and turn back to his article.
Jenna and Harper are all aflutter about Gavin, so I tell them to shut up a few times so I can understand what I’m reading. He’s never asked me for anything, and he’s been supportive of me and all of my writing hangups. The least I can do is give him feedback.
The headline reads, “No New Leads In Missing BU Student’s Disappearance.”
I plug my ears with my fingers to drown out the chatter. The article describes how Olivia Lawrence was an English major, a senior who spent the spring semester abroad, and she had just returned for the Fourth of July when she jumped on the T and was never seen again.
The article quotes one of her friends who says she traveled to Europe because she was looking for inspiration.
“‘She loved writing Harry Potter fanfiction and was working on her own story that featured a young girl who was trapped in a mystical world,’ her friend Anthony Levine said. ‘Olivia thought the old-world charm of England would be the perfect backdrop for her book.’”
I jot down a few notes, and as I’m finishing, Gavin walks back up to our table.
“What’s the verdict?” he asks, brimming with an intense energy.
“It’s really good. Amazing, actually.”
He smiles, his green eyes warm with flecks of gold.
“How did you track down people in England?”
“Most of them are back now. Her sister hooked me up with some of Olivia’s friends online, and I did a little digging on my own to talk to two of her professors.”
“Your lead is really tight and everything flows well. The only mistake I found was this attribution,” I say, pointing. “I’m guessing it’s a copy-and-paste mistake.”
He reads over my comments.
When he’s done, I turn to the last page. “My other suggestion is to switch these paragraphs because this one is a more powerful way to end the article.”
He runs his teeth over his full lower lip. “You’re right.” He takes my pen and scribbles a few notes in the margin.
“Is that for theFree Press?” Jenna asks. If she leans over anymore, she’ll be in my lap.
“No, theGlobe.” He’s still scribbling in the margin of his article.
“I didn’t know you still worked for theGlobe,” I say.
“I wasn’t, but my editor from the internship was impressed with what I’ve been doing for theFreepthis fall, and he called me and said he wanted me writing for him. So I work for both.”
Gavin runs his hand over the back of his neck, his head obviously still in his article.
“Wow, that’s awesome!” Jenna gets a few angry looks from the people near us. I’m so impressed with Gavin I don’t know what to do with myself.
Kade walks up behind Gavin. “Dude, you done?” He doesn’t say hi. He doesn’t even try to be cordial. I roll my eyes.
Jenna greets the douchebag, and they talk about an upcoming gig.
Gavin checks his phone and leans down to me. “I’ll call you later, unless you want totext me,” he says with a wicked gleam in his eye as he kisses my temple. Remembering my embarrassing Out-skank moment yesterday, I put my hand over my face to hide. I hear him laugh behind me as he and Kade take off.
I don’t know how long I sit there thinking about him before Harper clears her throat. She smiles briefly before a look of concern crosses her face.
“I have two questions,” Harper says hesitantly. “Have you had any panic attacks… about him?”
I shake my head, a small grin spreading. She smiles in return and reaches over and punches me lightly.
“Good. Now, for the really important question. Where can I find myself one of those? Does he have a brother?”
“Right?” Jenna might be in a relationship, but she appreciates eye candy when she sees it. And that boy is most definitely eye candy. Not to mention one hell of a writer.
* * *
Jenna and Harper run off to different study groups, and I head home, but when I get to the center of campus, my feet grind to a stop.
The crowd in Marsh Plaza is silhouetted by the setting sun as hundreds of candles wink in the breeze. It’s a rally for Olivia. A man in his early fifties, wearing khakis and a gray sweater, is standing on the second steps of the school chapel.
“She’s out there, and she needs your help,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “We want to get her home safely, and her mother and I want to remind you of Olivia’s story so you don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t walk around campus or this city at night alone. That was Livvy’s mistake.”
My heart breaks listening to Mr. Lawrence. The way he talks about her like she’s alive. Like she’s coming home when she’s probably long gone.
The man struggles to continue before he holds his hand over his face. His wife wraps her arms around him. I avert my eyes, feeling bad that they have to share this heartbreak in front of what must be three hundred people.
On the other side of the crowd, I spot Gavin quietly interviewing a few students. He looks in his element. So commanding and compassionate. Pride swells in me as I watch him cover the story, one that means so much to him.
A few feet away from me, a small news crew has set up, and a tall, slender student with long, dark hair talks into the microphone.
I can barely make out her words over the sound of the wind.
“Authorities are asking the public for help. If you have any information about the disappearance of Olivia Lawrence, please contact the number on your screen. I’m Madeline McDermott forBU News.”
I’d never willingly stand in front of a camera like the broadcast students. That takes so much courage. I’m pretty sure I’d stutter or make some totally humiliating Freudian slip.
Turning to go, I stop abruptly when I come face to face with Brigit. We appraise each other briefly before I clear my throat.
“Hi, Brigit. How are you?”
She looks surprised we’re speaking, but then her eyes tighten at the corners.
“It’s Clem, right?” Her voice is cold and clipped.
I nod and give her a sympathetic smile. There’s no reason we should be enemies even though that’s obviously what Jason wants. She has no idea what she’s getting herself into, no idea who he is.
I should warn her.
I hoist my messenger bag higher on my shoulder. “How is the writing going? I had a hard time getting that first book done.” Okay, I’ve had trouble getting the second one done too. “Is your book fiction?”
She lets the question hang in the air and bites her cheek as her eyes shift to the ground.
“I’m, uh, a little stuck.”
I shrug. “I’m working on a romance novel right now, and I’m pretty sure it probably sucks. It would help if I liked romances.”I can’t exactly come straight out and tell her Wheeler might try to cop a feel between edits. “I got a C on my last assignment.”
The tension in her shoulders starts to ease with my admission, and she tells me her book is about something that happened to one of her friends when they went on spring break.
Talking to Brigit isn’t as hard as I imagined, but she reminds me of a sparrow, ready to fly away at the first sign of trouble, so I don’t push.
I offer to send her a pacing guide I got from one of my writing classes, and I scribble my email on a ripped corner of notebook paper and hand it to her.
“Thanks, Clem,” she says, smiling, looking a little surprised that I’m trying to help her.
“I volunteer in the tutoring center if you ever want a second pair of eyes to edit something.” Or need a few tips to avoid sexual harassment.
Crouching in the chip aisle of the convenience store to grab a bag of Cheetos is the only reason I overhear this conversation. I’m not an eavesdropper. Generally.
“He was such a good lover,” a girl with a throaty voice purrs on the other side of the aisle. “And he was sohuge.” Someone giggles. “I don’t know why we only had sex a couple of times. Every time I see him I want to…” She whispers the last part, but I can only imagine what she says.
I bite my lip, embarrassed to be listening in on this personal conversation. I should get my artificial flavor fix and walk away, but I’m rooted in the aisle like a great oak.
“Why did you ever break up? He’s fucking hot,” the friend, who has a thick New York accent, says loudly, only to have the other one shush her.
“Tammy, shit. Could you be any louder?”
I guess everyone has a friend like that. The loud one. My eyes travel to a bag of Doritos, and I decide to splurge and get a large bag for my roommates. I straighten up and pivot to the opposite wall of goodies and hunt for something chocolate.
“I’ll get him back. We were good together. I think he’s dating someone, but whatever. He simply doesn’t know he needs me. Yet. And if he thinks he can blow me off, he has another thing coming. No stupid bitch is going to stand in my way.”
Junior Mints would be really good melted over popcorn, which we already have at home.This evil idea blossoms, and I grab a box.
With an armload of junk food, I round the corner and collide with a whirlwind of crimson.
“What the—” An angry redhead glares at me as my snacks go flying.
“I’m so sorry.” I try not to laugh at my clumsiness, but the chick doesn’t look amused. In fact, she pales as she watches me pick my snacks off the floor.She looks familiar. Really familiar.
The friend nudges Angry Red, but she doesn’t say anything. In fact, she watches me pay for my items, and I sense her eyes on my back when I leave.
* * *
A few hours later, my phone buzzes, and I’m expecting another ridiculous sext from Jenna—she’s been sending them every five minutes from the other side of the apartment—but it’s Gavin.
I have to babysit the children tonight at the dorms. Come keep me company.
We’re supposed to go climbing again after classes tomorrow. I’m so tempted to hang out with him, but I’m not sure if that’s smart.
Me:I have to write.
Gavin:Do it here and bring some food. Chinese?
I debate this for a good ten minutes while we banter back and forth. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him since I saw him earlier today, and I’m starting to get worried. When I think about him, I get warm and fuzzy and mildly euphoric.
Shit. This is bad.
But Gavin won’t take no for an answer. He says he’s going to starve, and the next time I’m drunk, I’m going to have to find some other amazingly strong man to carry me home.Jeez.
I write him back:Fine. Since I’m your friend, I’ll bring you dinner.
Gavin:My friend whose ass looks amazing in those little black shorts.
Gavin:Kidding. Kind of. Get over here.
Me:Bossy! Give me half an hour.
* * *
I groan, frustrated, and close my laptop. I’ve been trying to write for the last forty-five minutes, but the details keep tripping me up.
“What’s wrong?” Gavin asks as he leans back in his chair. Tonight, he’s writing an article about the need for greater security on campus. Chinese food cartons litter his desk. I’m in my usual spot, stretched out on his bed.
This is going to sound dumb. “I was debating whether I want the love interest, Aiden, to be a flowers guy.”
“What do you mean?”
“Is he the kind of guy who gives flowers or not? Romantic or tough guy? I’m still working out my character sketches.” I groan. “I should have this figured out by now.”
His eyebrows arch. “Well, what do you like? Do you like getting flowers?”
I draw a blank. The problem, once again, is that I have no experience in this area.
Laughing, I say, “I have no idea.”
“This should be easy. When a guy brought you flowers, did you like it?” I hear the humor in his voice.
If I make this admission, he’s going to think I’m a total moron. He puts his pen down and turns to face me.
“Clementine, please tell me someone has given you flowers.”
I can’t outright lie to him. I guess I could, but this seems like a stupid reason, not that there’s ever really a good reason to be dishonest.
I shake my head slowly. “Not that I remember. I guess I’m having a bit of a dry spell, but see, that’s what happens when you don’t date. No dating means no flowers.”
“What about Daren? Weren’t you guys pretty serious?”
“Yeah, but I grew up with him. We made mud pies together, and I crawled into his room with a handful of worms. I don’t think he saw me as the kind of girl who liked flowers.” I tap my pen on the top of my laptop while I mull it over. “But I think I’d like flowers. I mean, who the hell doesn’t like flowers?” I smile. Talking about this character stuff is helpful. I open my laptop and start typing again. “Thanks, Gav. I’m obviously making this too hard. My professor is right. I do need to loosen up.”
My phone buzzes with a text from my brother. Reading it makes my stomach tighten and the happy buzz from writing disappear.
“Uh, no,” I murmur to myself as I type a message.
“No?” Gavin asks.
“Jax wants me to go home and pack.” I shake my head.
“Pack what? I thought you didn’t go home.”
“I don’t.” I chew on my nail as I think about it. “My brother wants me to pack up my bedroom because our parents are about to demolish it and put in a workout room or a walk-in closet or some other unnecessary luxury that will help distract them from their rich-people problems.”
When I finish responding to Jax, I toss my phone back in my bag, and I look up to find Gavin staring.
“So are you going to do it?” he asks.
Will he think I’m a freak if I tell him the truth? That I don’t care? I decide on the truth, or a small version of it at least. “I told him not to worry about it, to let them throw my stuff out.”
Gavin’s eyes look heavy with questions, but he doesn’t ask, and I don’t offer to explain my fucked-up relationship with my parents. He returns to writing his assignment. I like that about him. He knows when to back off.
After another hour of work, he stretches and gets up from his desk. “Baby, have you eaten enough?” he asks as he gathers up the cartons of food.
“Yeah, thanks.”There it is again. Baby.I watch him for some recognition of this term of endearment, but he’s tossing paper plates into the trash and straightening his desk.
My heart is beating erratically.It is one word, for God’s sakes.I am a total spaz. Glancing at the clock, I realize it’s getting late. Maybe this is a good time to head home.
I close my laptop and crawl off his bed. “I have math at eight in the morning tomorrow, so I should get going.”
He grins as he walks over and wraps his arms around me. I drop my head on his chest, closing my eyes, relishing the feel of him.
“Your favorite class,” he says, his voice deep and almost melodic. I grin against him. “We’re still on for climbing tomorrow?”
“Thanks again for editing my article the other day. Where did you learn about leads and attribution?” Gavin asks as he rubs my back.
“I wrote a few articles for the high-school newspaper. Nothing special, but I learned the structure and a few terms.”
“You’re handy.” He looks down and smiles, his eyes shadowed by his long eyelashes.
“Glad I could help. I think it’s only fair after all of your expert makeout tutelage.”
“Speaking of which, I have a few thoughts for you,” he says, leaning down and rubbing his nose against mine.
“Really? I’m all—”
I can’t finish because his mouth is on mine, and as we’re kissing, he pushes me up against the door. Shoves me, actually, and it’s hot. His body is warm and hard against me. Tracing my hands along his strong shoulders, I think about how he scooped me onto the washing machine like I was weightless. I love these arms. There is something so safe about being wrapped up in Gavin Murphy, like I can forget everything when I’m with him, the past, the hurt, the humiliation.
I thread my fingers through his thick, soft hair as our kisses grow deeper. His tongue tangles with mine, sending a bolt of electricity to my core, and I don’t want to stop to breathe. After a few minutes, he groans and parts from me.
“If I don’t stop now, I won’t let you go home.” He leans down for another kiss, this one soft, tender. He lingers against my lips for a second and then runs his nose against my jawline, stopping so he can gently bite my earlobe.
I am a nuclear explosion. Fucking Chernobyl. My face is flushed, and parts of me pound like a gavel.
“Have I ever told you that you’re irresistible?” he whispers as I tilt my head to give him access to my neck. Yes, kiss my neck!
“No, I think I’d remember that.” I have chills running through my body from stem to stern, and I know I have to leave this minute before I give into what I really want to do. “You’re pretty damn sexy yourself.”
“Let me walk you home,” he whispers into my ear.
“No, you have work to do, and I live a block away.”
He holds me tighter. “I don’t want you walking around by yourself this late at night.”
“Campus security has never been tighter. I promise I’ll be okay. I’ll head straight home.” I look up at him, getting lost in those hypnotic green eyes. “I’ll call you as soon as I get in.”
He sighs, nodding slowly before he presses his lips to my temple and murmurs, “Goodnight, dearest Clementine.”
It’s been a hectic few days, and I hate to admit this, but I need my Gavin fix. He had to cancel our usual Friday workout at the gym because he had a last-minute assignment for theGlobe, and we couldn’t grab lunch on Saturday because I had to work a double shift. But this morning he mentions he’s hanging with Ryan, so when Jenna invites me to do laundry at her boyfriend’s house, I can’t resist tagging along.
Ryan’s band is sitting around the kitchen table when we arrive. Kade sees me and rolls his eyes, and I resist the urge to drown him in the kitchen sink. Is it my imagination or is he a bigger asshole than I remember?
Poker chips are strewn about, and a few empty pizza boxes litter the counter. I walk up behind Gavin, who looks up at me and smiles so brightly, I feel like I’m bathing in the sun. He’s standing up to hug me when his phone buzzes.
“Babe, can you hold my cards for a second?” he asks, kissing me on the cheek before he runs off to take the call. I look at the hand he left me, which I quickly hide against my shirt. When I glance up, everyone is looking at me.
Ryan’s mouth drops open dramatically before it slides into a grin.
“I see you and Gavin are getting along.”
“Yeah, we’re friends.”
“Friends with muthafucking benefits!” he yells. All the guys start laughing.
“Why do you make everything sound so lewd?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.
“Because Gavin is my boy, and he deserves lewd, a whole lot of lewd, like all up in his face.”
Jenna, who must have caught the last part of this conversation, walks up and leans in to whisper something in his ear. He looks down and nods.
“Sorry I’m giving you shit, Clem. I’ll shut up now.”
Gavin walks back in, tucking his phone in his pocket before he slides his arm around my waist, pulling me into his lap as he sits. Everyone is staring at me—again—except for Ryan, who is trying hard not to smile as he becomes very interested in his hand. I’m sure I must be crimson by now. The only thing keeping me on Gavin’s lap is the fact that I haven’t seen him in several days, and, God, I miss his touch.
“Ante up, bitches,” Ryan says, throwing in some chips.
Thankful Ryan is switching gears, I reach into my bag and pull out an envelope and hand it to the cute guy I’m sitting on.
“I thought I’d ask if you wanted these before I give them to Ryan.”
Gavin takes one hand and reaches around me to open it.
“BC vs. USC tickets?” He turns to me. “Seriously?”
“Yes, compliments of one Daren Sloan. They’re good seats too. Fifty-yard line, second row.”
His jaw tightens slightly. “You weren’t kidding about him sending you tickets?”
“I would never joke about that,” I say, brushing a strand of hair out of his face.
He stills beneath me. “So he’s been sending you tickets to every home game for three, going on four years?”
“Something like that.”
He frowns, getting an adorable crinkle in his forehead.
Ryan sits up in his chair. “You’re giving the BC tickets to this asshole? Clem,rememberwho moved all your crap for the last two summers.” He tosses his cards on the table.
I chuck a pretzel at him. “If Gavin wants, he can take you with him. I didn’t know you were such a football fanatic, Ryan, or I would have given you all the other tickets I threw out.”
Ryan groans again and slams the table, making everyone jump. “You threw them away? I would have killed to see last year’s BC/Notre Dame game. Do you have any idea what these tickets are worth?”
I roll my eyes.
“No, and I’m not interested.”
Ryan looks like he’s going to yank his hair out by its roots. I’ve never actually seen him so unhinged before. I watch him, curious if he’s going to yell at me some more when Gavin tosses the envelope across the table.
“Relax, man,” Gavin says, shooting him a look. “You can have the fucking tickets. Just stop freaking out at Clementine.”
I start to stand up, but Gavin tightens his hold, pulling me closer. Part of me is mortified to still be on his lap in front of a room of people, but the other part is excited as hell to finally see him.
Twenty minutes later, when I finally get around to tucking a load of laundry into the washer, a pair of hands grip me around the waist, making me scream.
“Damn, baby, you’re jumpy.” Gavin chuckles, turning me around to kiss my neck. “Your heart is racing.”
“You scared the shit out of me!” I smack his chest and he grins.
His eyebrows lift as he peeks over my shoulder. “Hmm. Delicates,” he says seductively. “I’d like to get to know your delicates.” He ducks back down to nibble on the spot just below my earlobe. He’s so delicious my legs might give out.
After a moment, he groans, stopping to press his forehead against mine. “I have to go finish up an article and babysit the freshmen. Want to join me later?”
“I’ll think about it,” I tease as his lips descend on mine.
“Good. Because Aiden misses the fuck out of Samantha,” he mumbles against my mouth, using my fictional characters to make me laugh.
I have to say the feeling is mutual.
* * *
Gavin is stroking my hair, and I’m nestled against his chest as we watchSons of Anarchyon Netflix. I definitely could get used to this.
“I’m sorry Ryan was such a prick today,” he says as the credits roll.
“It’s okay. I feel bad I didn’t give him the other tickets. I’ve always thrown them away as soon as they arrived and never thought about it.”
“Still, he shouldn’t have lost his shit that way.”
“He’s a good guy. He didn’t mean anything by it.”
I’m playing with the drawstring on his hoodie when the door flies open, slamming against the wall, and the little blonde girl I met a few weeks ago runs in.
“Jesus, Carly, ever heard of knocking?” Gavin asks as we get up.
“Sorry, sorry!” She covers her eyes like she’s afraid she might see something she shouldn’t. “Marnie is having a seizure or something. Hurry!” She turns around and runs out.
I grab my phone, and Gavin and I bolt after her. When we reach her room, the first thing I see is a bowl of soup that’s been dropped in the center of the room. Marnie is sprawled next to the noodles and bits of vegetables, her legs splayed at weird angles as her body shakes. Gavin ducks next to her as I dial 911.
“She has epilepsy,” Carly says as Gavin rests Marnie’s head on a pillow.
“911. What’s your emergency?” a voice says into my ear.
“I need paramedics at 700 Commonwealth Avenue, eighteenth floor of Warren Towers, building A. We’re in room…” I pause to glance at the number on the door and relay the information before I explain Marnie’s medical condition.
Carly is starting to cry, so I put my arm on her shoulder when I get off the phone.
“Marnie’s going to be okay. You got us really fast. Does she have any medication for this?”
Carly shakes her head and sniffles. “Not that I know of.”
When the paramedics arrive, they load Marnie on to the stretcher. She looks pale and a little glassy-eyed. Gavin walks next to her, holding her hand. He looks over to me, and I wave bye. He motions that he’ll call me later. Nodding, I turn back to Carly, who is still sniffling.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, I am definitely in the seventh circle of hell. One girl is braiding my hair while Carly and another perky brunette finish dabbing a honey-yogurt mask on my face. Jenna would be in heaven.
It can’t get any worse, though, right? Then One Direction starts blaring from the speakers, reminding me that I should never ask that question.
I’m wondering how to politely duck out of this as I turn and see Gavin leaning in the doorway.
“Clementine?” He chuckles as he soaks in the scene.
“Yeah. Don’t ask.”
Carly bobs up and down on her toes and claps her hands. “WeloveClem. Can we keep her? She’s so beautiful!”
“Ladies, she’s not a pet. Stop pawing at her. Clementine has to get up early tomorrow. I’m going to steal her, but if you’re good, she might visit.”
They giggle. A few minutes later, I walk out of Gavin’s bathroom, wiping my face with a towel.
“Thanks for getting me out of there. They were upset, so I suggested manicures because that’s what my roommates like to do when they’re stressed, and the next thing I know I was being coated in honey and yogurt. I’m still a little sticky,” I say as I try to wipe off a bit of goo that’s on my neck.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” he says, pulling me to him and placing feather-light kisses across my face. When he reaches my jaw, I tilt my head to the side, letting him nuzzle against me.
“Mmm. Found a spot.” His soft kisses stop as he takes a small lick up my neck.Oh, shit. That was hot.“You taste really good,” he whispers.
His mouth migrating across my collarbone makes it difficult to think coherently. “I don’t know how I ended up as their guinea pig.” I’m starting to pant. Fuck.
“They. Wanted. A perfect specimen,” he says between kisses.
My knees are weak, and I’m about to push him onto his bed and let him touch me any way he wants when a loud knock on the door makes me jump.
“God, that scared me,” I laugh, nerves shooting through me like my parents just caught us, an idea that gives me pause because of course my parents don’t give a shit.
Gavin opens the door and an older guy is standing there with a clipboard.
“Incident report for the lucky RA,” the man says cheerfully as he hands over a stack of paperwork.
I know this is going to take a while, so I grab my bag. “I’m gonna get out of your hair so you can take care of this,” I say.
Gavin smiles grimly, and I wink back before heading home. I’m not even on my street yet when he texts me.
Gavin:Can I finally take you on a proper date? I’m warning you, though. If you say no, then Aiden is going to ask Samantha out, and she has to say yes.
My throat tightens as I think about his request.Relax. It’s a date. He’s not asking you to elope.I laugh at myself, at how ridiculous I’m being.
Me:My book boyfriend is so demanding!
Gavin:Pick you up on Friday at 7.
I laugh at his presumptuousness, that he assumes I’ll agree. But do I really want to decline? No. I want to spend time with him. In fact, I love spending time with him. I write back:I guess I could use some more inspiration…
Glad no one can see the idiotic grin on my face, I duck into my building. When I get into my room, his incoming message buzzes my phone:Wouldn’t want you to run into another dry spell.
Me:So really, this is in the name of higher learning.
Gavin:Funny you should mention that because you’re my favorite subject. I could study you all day.
His flirtatiousness makes me smile wider.
I love that about him, which is weird because for the past three years, I’ve ignored every guy who flirted with me. Every single one. But Gavin is different somehow. Sexy but sensitive. Strong but gentle. Easygoing but somehow intense. He can turn me inside out with one look, one touch, one kiss.
The second I get home, I get another text from him asking if I got home safely. God, a girl could get used to Gavin Murphy.
I’m lonely in my bed without him, which makes me wonder how far I’ll let things go on Friday night, an idea that both thrills and terrifies me.
This may be the worst coffee in town, but it’s fast and cheap and ready right now. I’m putting the lid on my twenty-four-ounce cup of joe when someone steps up right next to me.
I whirl around to see Gavin.
He laughs at the look on my face. “Not used to guys trying to pick you up while you’re getting your coffee fix?”
“Shut up, goofball. You scared me, whispering in my ear like that.”
He smiles and wraps me in a hug in the middle of the convenience store, and I try to sniff him without looking like a total creeper. I don’t know what shower gel he uses, but it makes me want to lick him.
“Where you headed?” He keeps his hand on my waist.
“The tutoring center. Don’t worry, I’m not out trying to pass myself off as a math whiz. I edit essays.”
My therapist suggested tutoring last year to help me be more social because, apparently, I need help in this area.
“What a relief.”
Before I can respond, he pulls me to him and kisses me on the forehead. I smile a big, toothy grin, and I’m sure I look like an idiot, so I bite my cheek to rein it in.
“I hope Marnie is feeling better. Is she back from the hospital?”
“Yeah, she’ll be okay. She hasn’t had a seizure in a while, so I think that scared her the most.” We pay for our drinks and walk out to the street. “You were pretty awesome last night. I meant to tell you.”
“What are you talking about? You’re the one who handled the whole thing. I only did facials.”
“Clementine, come on. Carly was in tears when I left, and when I returned, she was having a blast. You’re really good in a crisis.”
“No, I think that was a first.”
He walks me to the liberal arts building, but before he leaves for class, he ducks his head toward mine, leaving us practically nose to nose.
Gavin drops his voice just above a whisper. “We still on for Friday?”
My heart thump, thump, thumps in my chest. “If I say yes, does this mean you’re going to woo me with more than take-out Thai?”
“I’m going to break out my best moves. I promise.”
In this light, his eyes have golden flecks amid the green. “Honestly, I don’t know if Samantha is ready for it. She’s a little on the shy side.” I swallow and look down except he takes his thumb and lifts my chin so I have to look him in the eye.Thump, thump, thump.
“It’s okay. Aiden can be very persuasive.” And before he turns to leave, he plants a kiss on my mouth, lingering on my lips as he says, “I’ll call you later.”
I watch him walk away, wishing I could rewind the last ten minutes of my life so I could see them play out again. In slow motion.
Floating a good twelve inches out of my shoes, I dart into the tutoring lab. The large room is ice-cold, and my Converse squeak on the tile floor, causing a few students to pop their heads up to stare at my offending shoes.
Behind the volunteer desk is Kade, shuffling through his backpack.
I knew he tutored economics and other boring-as-hell subjects, but I’ve usually had the good luck to avoid him. His hair is a mess, and he looks like he slept in his clothes.
I clear my throat. “What happened to Gina?” She usually coordinates all the volunteers.
He glances up and rolls his eyes at me before tossing a clipboard across the desk.
“It’s nice to see you too, Kade,” I mutter before I pencil in my name on a few open slots for next month. Gone is my fluttery, Gavin-is-so-adorable giddiness.
“You shouldn’t wait until the last minute,” Kade says, not bothering to look at me. He turns to the computer and curses under his breath as he reaches over to pull out the paper tray on the printer.
“Some of us have to work for a living.” I expect some snarky comment, but instead he types something on the keyboard. “I had to wait for my schedule at the bookstore before I could sign up for October.”
After restacking some neon pink paper, he slams the tray back into the machine, making me flinch. Jesus, what’s gotten into him?
“Are… are you okay? You’re acting more assholish than usual.”
I wait for his comeback, which usually entails some kind of reference to us having sex. We’ve had this kind of relationship since sophomore year when I met him through Ryan. Kade is the kind of guy who is nice until you turn him down, and then he’s a dick-stick, looking to unleash his wrath on the poor girls who dare to think he’s not the biggest catch on the Eastern Seaboard. And since I unequivocally turned him down the first time, he’s been a raging prick to me ever since.
The printer starts to churn again.
“Leave it on the desk when you’re done,” he says, motioning toward the clipboard before he turns his back to me.
I grab my bag off the counter and start to sling it over my shoulder when I catch a glimpse of his computer screen and see a familiar face.He’s printing missing posters.
“Kade,” I say softly, “do you know Olivia?”
He stills and takes a deep breath before he turns to face me. “I’m not in the mood for this, Clem, and yes, I know her.”
His face looks pained, his mouth a tight line, his eyes full of emotion. We’ve never shared any fun or easygoing times together despite the fact that we have the same friends, but I know that look. After what happened with Professor Wheeler freshman year, for months, every time I stood in front of a mirror I saw a similar expression.
Even though Kade has never done me any favors, I have a hard time walking away. This must be what Gavin meant when he said Kade was going through a tough time.
Lowering my voice, I say, “Can I help you post those up around campus? I have to get to class right now, but I can probably put some up this afternoon.”
He looks up, surprised, and clears his throat. It takes him a second to respond. “Yeah, that would be great.”
I take a stack of fliers and start to leave but can’t. Rubbing the back of my neck, I turn back and inch toward his desk.Be an adult, Clementine.In my head I try to ignore every insult he’s ever given me, every dirty look, every rude remark. And there have been a few.
“There’s one more thing.” I crouch in front of his desk so that we’re eye level with each other. “I feel bad leaving you like this. I know we’ve never gotten along, but I don’t see why we can’t be friends. I want us to have coffee tomorrow, okay?” He looks dubious. “You can even pretend we slept together, and I was the worst lay ever.”
He cracks a smile.
“I have seen your tits. Let’s not forget.”
And just like that, the asshole is back. I smirk and let him have his dig. At least he’s not thinking about Olivia.
* * *
Kade is sitting at a small table in the corner of the coffee house when I walk in the next morning. He already has a cup in front of him, so I order a latte and sit across from him.
“I put up those flyers all over West Campus yesterday evening. Do you have any more? Because I ran out.”
His eyebrows are knitted tightly on his forehead. “Thanks. That’s great. I can get you some more.”
I pop open my drink, toss in two packets of sugar and stir. “How do you know Olivia?”
He sucks in his lips briefly and shakes his head. “How else? I asked her out last year, we dated a while, I was a dick, and then we stopped talking.”
I tilt my head as I stare at him. Kade’s hair is spiked up and forward into his face. His fierce hazel eyes peer back at me. He’s handsome, there’s no doubt about it, but the second he opens his mouth, girls want to slap him.
“Have you ever tried being nice?”
His face twists into a half-smirk. “Says the pot.”
I take a sip of my drink. “Touché. But I’mtryingto be a nicer person. Thus, here we are, drinking coffee together despite the dozens of insults we’ve swapped.” He’s wearing a t-shirt and jeans and a rustic-looking brown leather jacket.Better than that just-rolled-out-of-bed look he was rocking yesterday.“On paper, you are a catch. You’re good-looking, you’re smart, and when you’re not being a dick, you’re kind of funny, not that I would ever give you the satisfaction of laughing at one of your jokes. Why do you have to be such a jerk all the time?”
He raises his eyebrows. “You think I’m good-looking?”
“That’s what you got from what I just said?” I give him a look, and he shrugs. “I’m trying to be helpful. Trust me, I’m not interested.”
“Yeah, I know. You have that thing going on with Murphy.”
I don’t know how to answer that, so I ignore the comment. “I think there’s more to you, but you never let anyone see it. If you make a deliberate attempt tonotpiss off girls, you might find that they like you for more than a month or two. It’s a crazy concept I have. Try it out.”
“Fine.” He rolls his eyes at me, but he’s fighting a smile.
“Tell me about Olivia. I’ve read a couple of articles about her. She spent last semester in England?”
“Yeah, but she traveled all over Europe before she returned.” He looks like he wants to say something else but doesn’t.
He shakes his head. “This is going to sound weird.”
“Try me. But don’t be an asshole.”
Kade laughs, and it’s good to see a full-fledged smile on his face. “Livvy reminded me a little of you. She had this long brownish-blonde hair, and she loved to write. But she wasn’t as opinionated as some people I know,” he says, deepening his voice melodramatically.
“Me? Have opinions? Puh-leese.” I fold over a sugar packet until it’s the shape of a triangle. “She was an English major, right?”
“Yeah, she could read a novel in a night. It was really fucking annoying. You would have liked her.”
The way he talks about her in the past tense doesn’t escape me, and my heart breaks a little.
“She sounds like a great girl. Do you talk to her family?”
“Her sister. She’s really fucked up over this. Norah had convinced Livvy to come home for the Fourth of July weekend since they always partied it up together.” Kade gets quiet and lifts his mug to take a sip.
“Have you talked to Gavin about her? You know he’s been writing all of those articles for theFreep, right?”
“Yeah, we’ve talked. I don’t know anything that could help him, and I don’t want to be quoted in the newspaper. I hate how people come out of the woodwork to get attention when shit like this happens.”
That right there makes me warm up to him a little more. When my family is in the tabloids, people I don’t even know talk about me like we’re best friends.
Maybe Kade’s not such a huge asshole after all.
“I know what you mean.” I stir my drink a few times, not knowing what to say. “I’m sorry, Kade. I really am. Please call me if I can help put up flyers or make posters. Whatever you need.”
He nods. “The thing is, I pushed her away. For the life of me, I don’t know why. Livvy put up with my shit, she was beautiful and smart, but I had my head up my ass.”
“But what happened to her wasn’t your fault.”
Frustration and remorse lurk behind his eyes. “She decided to go abroad after we broke up. She was pissed at me.”
Okay, I’m doing a suck-ass job of giving this guy a pep talk. “Look, people break up all the time. You’re not the first guy to piss off a girl. Trust me.” He smirks. “She might have had the time of her life in England. What happened to her when she got home isn’t any more your fault than her sister’s.”
He stares at the table. “Do you ever feel like you don’t like who you’re becoming?”
I laugh, and his eyes dart to mine. “Kade, honestly, you’re frightening me. I never thought I’d have anything in common with you, but to answer your question, yes. What you said basically encapsulates most of my college experience.”
“I thought you were perfect.” He makes a U shape with his hands, and I flick my football made from a sugar packet toward the goal. Of course, I miss.
“About as perfect as you.”
He rubs his chin and grins. “I’ve never told you this before, Clem, but you’re a cool girl.”
I smile back.
“Thanks. You’re not too bad yourself.”
The sun is shining; the wind off the river is a perfect forty-five degrees; my heart is aflutter with thoughts of Gavin; Kade and I have called a truce; and my professor likes what I’ve written. I dare say the feeling I’m experiencing is called happiness.
“You whore,” Jenna whispers when she sees my grade on our last submission. “You got an A on your last submission?”
I nod, shushing her. Professor Marceaux is doing her daily strut. That’s what I call it. The focal point of this woman’s body is her hips, which she points to the far reaches of the earth as she walks. It reminds me of the catwalk models do, but this is more organic somehow, like she was birthed from erotic sculptures that infused sexuality through her all the way down to her toes. Watching her as she passes out the revised syllabus, I realize she’d make a great character. Inspired, I jot down a few notes in my journal before I lose the vision.
I’m marveling at my good turn of luck, at my ability to take things in stride, at how far I’ve come, when it all comes crashing down on me.
Clenching my eyes shut, I try to get a grip before I totally freak out. Jenna’s quick intake of breath tells me she sees it too. When I open my eyes, my name is still there on the paper in front of me. My roommate nudges me, and when I turn to her, the lump in my throat rises.
“Our class is critiquing your book.” Her words, a mixture of praise and worry, seize the very core of me.
I nod infinitesimally, barely able to breathe.
* * *
I’m hot and sticky. I smell. Running hasn’t purged me of all my nervous energy, but it’s helped. I’ve been pumping myself with positive thoughts for the last hour. Harper is always telling me the fear of a situation is worse than the reality. I hope she’s right and that I don’t pass out in the middle of class or piss my pants next week when we critique my book.
I open the door to our apartment and stop short. Gavin and Ryan are hanging out with Jenna and Dani.
“Hi, guys.” I wave, embarrassed that I look like crap, but the grin on Gavin’s face damn near makes me forget my name.
“Good! You’re back!” Jenna proclaims. “You looked pretty pissed when you left, so I wasn’t sure if you’d be out running a marathon. You have time for a quick shower before the pizza gets here.”
Gavin gets up to hug me, but I put up both hands to stop him.
He grabs me anyway and whispers, “Not a problem in my book, darlin’.” I crack a smile. “Is everything okay? Why were you upset?” His eyes are full of concern as his hands grip my shoulders.
“It’s a long story. Can I tell you later?” I’m just starting to get a handle on everything, and I don’t feel like rehashing it right now.
He nods, kissing my forehead and then smacking his lips. “You’re salty.”
I laugh, pushing him away. “I warned you.”
When I emerge from the steamy bathroom fifteen minutes later, I grab a slice of pizza and sit next to Gavin as Harper walks in the front door.
“Look who I found loitering outside,” she says. “This bum claims he’s your brother.”
Behind her, Jax struts in carrying a large cardboard box. I haven’t seen him since our birthday. His hair is longer than he usually keeps it, but he’s tanned and sleek like a panther, brimming with that overconfident edge he’s always had.
“Hey, loser,” he says, placing the box on the coffee table next to the pizza.
“Hey, yourself.” As I eye the box, a knot forms in my stomach. I stare at my name on the side, written in my brother’s blocky handwriting. “I told you I didn’t want this.”
I get up and walk to the micro-fridge to grab some paper towels. My brother sighs at me. It’s one of those long, drawn-out sighs that reminds me of our mother.
“They were throwing away all of your shit. I know you don’t care about it now, but you might someday.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he laughs as he turns to my roommates. “You’d never know this girl was prom queen.” I give him a look, and he shakes his head. “Wait, you were homecoming queen too.”
“Jax, I never cared about that,” I say, ducking into my room. Although homecoming was fun, I only got voted prom queen because everyone felt sorry for me. It was so fucking humiliating. My face gets hot thinking about it.
My brother follows behind me and grips the top of the doorframe.
“Exactly. That’s why you were so popular.”
Rolling my eyes, I say, “I was popular because I was dating the 'star quarterback.'”
My brother ignores my sarcasm. “That’s not why. Clem, before all that shit went down with Daren, you were the coolest girl I knew. You were the party. You could make anything fun. I miss that girl. I miss my sister.”
“Yeah, well, that makes two of us,” I say grimly.
Jax is quiet, and I don’t remember why I came in here, but seeing my brother in the doorway, blocking my exit, makes me claustrophobic.
He clears his throat. “You know, Daren still feels really bad about what happened.”
I glare at him. After all this time, my brotherfinallywants to talk about it? “Why are you telling me this? Do you still think I’m hung up on Daren?”
“I don’t know. You haven’t dated anyone since high school, and I know you loved him. I just want you to get over it and have a life again. I mean, you stopped running track, you never go out, you hardly have any friends.”
I’ve decided that my brother is a certifiable asshole. I throw up my hands in frustration.
“What do you even know about me, Jackson? Ilostmy track scholarship, so I’ve had to work my ass off to pay for my tuition. My professor attacked me when I was a freshman. I’d say I’m doing pretty damn well considering.”
His blue eyes widen, and he stammers, “I… I didn’t know any of that.”
A gaping silence settles between us. I don’t bother bringing up how my freshman-year roommate freaked out on me because of my brother and his man-whoring ways.
“What do you mean your professor attacked you?” Jax looks pale, and his jaw is clenched.
I shake my head, my chest flooded with the dark buzz of panic. This is how an attack starts. I suck in a few deep breaths, forcing myself to focus on my brother’s scuffed shoe.
“Fucking hell, Clementine. Who is this asshole?”
My eyes shift up. The vein in Jax’s temple is the only movement in his tightly coiled body.
“Forget about it. There’s nothing you can do.” Or could do. Even if Jax had known back then, the end result would have been the same, right? “I’m fine now.” Not so much back then.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” The pain in his voice cuts through me.
My heart sinks at the answer. Does he really want to hear this? Can I even say it? I lick my dry lips.
“You didn’t back me up with Daren.” The words are a whisper. “Why would you care about this?”
Jax winces, and I keep going. “Mom and Dad didn’t seem to care.” The laugh that escapes me is tinged with resentment. “You know, they don’t pay for my shit like they pay for yours,” I say, eying his perfectly cut leather jacket.
Sweat breaks out on my forehead. I wish he’d leave and take that damn box with him.
My brother always thinks he has the answers. We used to be so close. Inseparable. But now, as I stare at a face I know as well as my own, I realize we haven’t known each other for a long time.
“Jax, if you think what happened with Daren is what broke me, you don’t know me at all.”
“Then what was it? What happened? Is it what went down with your professor?”
I tilt my head, wondering how my twin can be so clueless. “The people I trusted most betrayed me. Mom and Dad… and you.”
His eyes narrow. “How? How did I betray you? Because Daren is my best friend?”
Jax wants to go there? Fine.
I take a step closer to him and look him eye to eye, my heart beating in my throat. I try to speak, but nothing comes out. Taking a breath, I try again.
“When did you find out that Daren was sleeping with Veronica?”
His eyes dart away as a mixture of emotions—anger, guilt, shame—cross his face. He swallows.
“Exactly. You knew, and you didn’t tell me.”Dick.
He closes his eyes. “I almost broke his jaw.”
My head snaps toward him. “What?”
“I almost broke Daren’s jaw when I found out.” His eyes are still closed.
Thinking back to that spring, I remember Daren getting injured at a training camp the week before I broke up with him.
“He said he got hurt in a scrimmage.”
His eyes slide up to meet mine. “Yeah. A scrimmage with my fist.”
The lump in my throat threatens to choke me. This whole time I thought Jax had known and done nothing.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?”
His jaw clenches and unclenches. “You’re my sister. Daren is like my brother. Deep down, I had this crazy idea that you two would end up together, and I was afraid to get in the middle. I’m not going to lie—I was going through my own shit back then, so I know I wasn’t the best brother. I didn’t notice when Daren started sneaking around with that cunt.”
I flinch at my brother’s choice of words, realizing for the first time that he hates Veronica, probably on my behalf.
He exhales like he’s been holding his breath.
“When I first found out he was cheating on you, I didn’t want to believe it, but the rumors wouldn’t go away, so I confronted him. And when we were done with thatconversation, he knew he needed to man up and sort out his shit and talk to you. Only you figured it out first.”
I blink back hot tears that threaten to spill over.
“Clem, you must have thought I’d gone on with my friendship with him like nothing happened, but it took a few years to get past it.” Jax shifts in the doorway and crosses his arms over his chest. “And I know he still feels like shit over what he did to you. That helps.”
We stand on opposite sides of the room, and I’m too overwhelmed to speak. His eyes fall on the moving box.
“Look,” he says softly, “I know Mom has been hard on you, but I think she misses you.”
I know he doesn’t believe that, but it’s the kind of lie we’ve always told ourselves.Mom wanted to come to the game, but she had a meeting. Dad missed a flight home from Paris because he got stuck in traffic. They didn’t mean to forget our birthday.
But I’m no longer twelve and in desperate need of their approval, and hearing that bullshit now snaps something inside of me. “They sure have a fucked-up way of showing it. Nothing says I love you like ‘take your shit before we toss it on the street.’”
“You’re not being fair. You haven’t called them or gone to see them…” He’s saying the right words, but not even Jax can put any conviction behind it.
I should be sad that he talks about our parents as though our father didn’t disappear to another continent without a second thought, but I’m too pissed to go along with the charade.
“Are you serious right now?” I’ve avoided this conversation with him for three years, but now all of my carefully clamped-down emotion is at the surface, hot and bubbling like lava. “Did you ever wonder how I lost my state meet after I won all the others my senior year? How I barely eked out a fifth-place finish when my practice times could have beaten all those girls that day?”
“Mom found out I had broken up with Daren that morning. I was walking out the door, and she told me it was my fault Daren cheated on me because I should have slept with him months ago. She said, ‘Why do you think I put you on the pill?’ Then she said she was late for a meeting and left.”
The emotion of this conversation catches up with me, and tears stream down my face.
“So did Daren break my heart? Yes. Did he hurt me by hooking up with my best friend? Yes. But you have no idea how humiliating it is to have the whole school know that your boyfriend is getting blow jobs in the weight room and your own brother knows and doesn’t tell you, or that your mother doesn’t care that her daughter is dating an asshole.”
I put on a sweatshirt and sniffle.
“Jax, I get that you didn’t know what to do, but you should have told me. If you had, maybe I wouldn’t have found them fucking in his bed.”
His eyes widen as more tears fall down my cheeks.
“They didn’t know I had walked in. Not that either would have cared.”
My body starts to move, and I have only a vague awareness of what I’m doing. The running shoes slip on, and my fingers tie the laces.
Jax clears his throat.
“Clementine, I’m so sorry. For everything, I—”
I get up and push past him into the living room where I come to a dead halt when I see everyone looking at me. Fuck. When my eyes meet Gavin’s, I look down. My heart thunders in my chest. God damn it.
“I’m going for another run,” I say as I walk out. When I reach the bottom of the stairwell, I’m vaguely aware that someone is calling my name, but it doesn’t matter.Nothing matters, I think as I head out onto the dark street.
* * *
The living room is quiet. I tiptoe into my room and find Harper asleep on my bed. The creak of my door wakes her, and she yawns before she registers what’s going on.
“Hey, you’re back. I saved you some pizza. Actually, Gavin did. He wants you to call him. He’d still be here, but he had a late shift tonight at the dorm.”
“I’m okay, Harper. You don’t need to babysit me.” I can barely kick off my running shoes much less eat a slice of pizza.
“I know I don’t, but I didn’t want you to come home to an empty room.” She starts to stretch and then frowns. “Clem, Jax is wrong. You have friends.”
The thought that the whole world heard the argument I had with my brother makes me nauseous.
“You guys heard everything?” Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they only heard snippets here and there.
She nods, looking apologetic. “Your door was open. It was hard to miss.”
I smile weakly. “What can I say? Jax and I bring out the best in each other.”
“I know you’re pissed at him, but he loves you. He wouldn’t have taken the time to pack up your stuff and bring it to you if he didn’t care. What he did to you in high school was totally shitty, and I get that, but he grew up in the same screwed-up family that you did. You can’t exactly expect flowers to bloom in the desert.”
I grin through my fatigue. “That was some nice metaphorical language there, Harps.”
As she gets up, I collapse on the bed, too tired to even shower, which is a cardinal sin in my book.
“Don’t you want to call Gavin?”
“Not really.” In fact, that’s the last thing I want to do.
“Can I offer my unsolicited opinion?”
I mumble into my pillow, “Will you stop talking if I say no?”
“Probably not.” She takes the silence as my acquiescence. I’m just too tired to speak. “Don’t shut Gavin out. You tend to cut people out of your life when you get scared or overwhelmed. I think you’re afraid of being judged. Give Gavin a little more credit.”
“Thanks, Doctor. How much do I owe you for our session?” I should be grateful she’s a psych major.
She swats me on the leg for being a smartass. “Clem, we love you.”
“I know. I love you too, nosey.”
She chuckles as she shuts my door.
Jax is an asshole. Daren is too.Gavin isn’t. But he probably thinks I’m a dumbass after what he heard yesterday.
I want to wallow in self-pity all morning, but I have to drag myself to math at the ass-crack of dawn. I sit in class, taking notes, copying down formulas, but my head doesn’t process anything except that my mechanical pencil is running out of lead.
I can’t believe Jax thinks this is all about Daren.
Another formula. Scribble, scribble. The professor asks whether we understand the concept.No. I nod yes.
In between classes, I take Gavin’s call. He says he understands that I don’t want to talk about what happened last night, but I’m sure he doesn’t get it. How could he? He has a nice two-parent household and younger sister, and they probably all sit around at dinner time and say shit like “Pass the peas!” and “How was your day, dear?”
By the time I get off the phone, I’m not sure I want to see him on Friday. I don’t like being put out for display. Harper is right about how I shut out people, but I can’t help how I feel. Gavin heard things I’ve only told one or two people, and I’ve only known him, what, a month?
Considering it was only twenty-four hours ago when I was marveling at myself in Professor Marceaux’s class and thinking my life was so great, I’d say the recent events are about on par with the shit that goes down in my life. How I thought I could change my luck now is beyond wishful thinking. More along the lines of delusional.
After another class, I trudge through campus toward the student union, exhaustion saturating my limbs. Lunch, I need lunch. My hands are trembling, probably from low blood sugar, and my head is so foggy I barely notice that I’m standing next to Brigit as I wait in a long line to pay for my food.
"Clem, how are you?"
I nod politely while I suck down some juice so I don’t pass out.
She ignores my grunt and says, “That pacing guide you emailed me is great.” She looks surprised I actually sent it to her.See, I’m not such a bitch.
“Glad I could help.” I offer a weak smile and pop a baby carrot into my mouth.
Her face lights up, and we end up talking about our schedules. She’s a sweet girl with big, soulful brown eyes that get even bigger when she’s excited about something.
“Jason says you’re published, that your book is really good,” she says as I reach for my wallet.
Wheeler complimented my writing? Not what I was expecting. It doesn’t escape me that she’s calling him by his first name. It starts that way. Casually. Him asking you to call him Jason, you thinking he’s just cool and down-to-earth.
“He’s being kind. I’m sure it’s horse shit.”
She giggles and smiles appreciatively. “I’d love to read it. What’s the title?”
I pay for my lunch and pick up the tray. Turning to face her, I brace my hand on the counter, still feeling lightheaded. Wisps of her dark hair fall into her eyes, and I shudder to think how much Wheeler could hurt Brigit if I don’t do anything.
“Next,” the cashier calls out.
Brigit puts her food down to pay and turns back to me. “You write under a pen name, right? I swear I won’t tell anyone.” She bounces on her toes.
My breath catches, and I feel people move around me as I stand stock-still. A knot forms in my throat, the one that tightens when I think about how much Jason Wheeler knows about me. How he could destroy me. Again.
Internally, I debate whether this is the right decision, telling someone I hardly know.Wait. Why am I even considering this? I haven’t even told Gavin for fuck’s sake.
That lock of hair falls in her eyes again, and she smiles, and there’s something so innocent about her expression. Something I want to protect.
Sensing my unease, Brigit sidles closer to me. “Your secret is safe with me. I promise.” She holds up her pinky.Her nails are each painted a different color. I look closer and see that her pinkies are purple with little hearts.Good lord.
So, yes, I fucking pinky-swear in the middle of the cafeteria, and I decide she’s too cute for her own good.
But as I'm internally debating whether I can actually tell her, someone yells her name across the cafeteria.
I turn to catch two girls motioning to Brigit, who huffs out a breath at the sight of her obnoxious friends.
"C'mon, Bridge!" the girl yells again. "Shake your ass!"
Brigit looks mortified.
I bump her with my elbow. "Go on. We'll catch up later," I tell her, relieved at the reprieve. "I'll send you another handout I got in class this week. For your story."
She nods, her smile reappearing, before she trots off to join her friends.
Exhaling, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. I should know by now that confiding in a stranger is a cardinal sin. I have to find a better way to win Brigit's trust. And I can't wait much longer to tell her about Wheeler.
Grabbing my food, I settle at a table in the corner of the dining hall. Trying to shake off my lingering anxiety, I get out my laptop and grab my journal.
My cell buzzes, and I see a text from Jenna:I’m wet for you.Choking back a laugh, I write her back:Dry off.
Jenna:Whore, you’re supposed to play the game!
Munching on another carrot until I can think of a good Out-skank comeback, I try to get in a dirty frame of mind. As I punch in the text with my thumbs, I look around to make sure no one can see my screen.
Me:Dripping wet makes for easy access.
Jenna:Want to slip and slide?
Eyeing a guy’s hot dog as he squeezes ketchup on it, I smile.
Me:Let me sink my meat into your bun hard and fast.
I’m blushing at my response when laughter bubbling up across the student union catches my attention. A tall redhead is tilting her head back, laughing flirtatiously at something a guy is saying. She has her hands on his shoulders as she leans in to say something obviously only meant for him to hear. They’re in a group of mostly guys, but she’s only paying attention to this one.
Angry Red.It’s the girl I overheard in the convenience store. Except now she’s wearing makeup and her hair is done.
She’s beautiful. Tall, leggy, with curves I could never have. I know I’m in great shape, but all that exercise means my boobs could never look like hers. I don’t know why I’m comparing myself to her. I don’t have body issues like a lot of girls, but for some reason I can’t stop watching her.
Deciding it’s rude to blatantly stare at her, I grab my sandwich.Boobs,I tell myself.Eating can give me bigger boobs.Just as I’m about to take a bite, I glance up, and my heart slams to a stop in my chest. Because the guy she is talking to, whispering to, touching, is Gavin.
* * *
The truth is, I have no idea what’s going on with Gavin and Angry Red. He and I never said we were exclusive. Hell, we’ve never actually been on a real date.
It’s not as though he can cheat on someone he’s not even dating.I bristle at the thought.He’s free to go out with whomever he wants, weirdo.
It’s not fair to judge him based on what happened with Daren, but I’ll be the world’s biggest idiot if I walk head-on into the same situation all over again. So I go straight to the only girl I consider an expert on these sorts of things: Jenna. After she compliments my Out-skanking skills, I sit her on the couch.
Her mouth forms a small “o” as I explain what I saw at lunch, but when I’m done, instead of looking adequately horrified, she laughs.
“That’s his ex, Angelique,” she says like she’s relieved. I’m glad someone is because that knowledge doesn’t really clarify things for me. Of course the stunning redhead would have a name like some kind of A-list celebrity. Sensing my apprehension, Jenna pats my shoulder. “She’s, like, stalking him. He broke up with her this summer, but she won’t go away. I think she’s an RA too, so they’re always forced to do things together, but he’s not happy about it. He was complaining to Ryan about it at your party. She’s always tagging along, and he’s too nice to tell her to fuck off.”
Jenna bites her nail as she watches my reaction.
“I guess… I guess I am jumping to conclusions.” The more I think about it, the more I realize I never saw his reaction to Angelique being so close to him. He was facing away from me the whole time. I assumed he was into her because she looks like a red-headed version of Angelina Jolie. Yeah, unequivocally gorgeous.
But before I get too far ahead of myself, I tell Jenna what I overheard Angry Red say in the convenience store, and she shrugs.
“You know, you could always ask him about her and see what he says.”
Oh dear God, no.After everything that’s happened this week, the last thing I need to do is grill him about his ex.Because that would make itlessawkward between us.
It sucks that he knows everything about my love life, and I don't know anything about his, which does nothing to assuage my unease. But in the end, I have no claim to Gavin. He’s a free agent, and I’m… well, I’m nobody.
I hug Jenna and shuffle back into my room. I need to stay focused on what matters, so I log on to Goodreads and scroll through my messages. Gavin and I might go to hell in a handbasket, but I have to graduate, which means I must sell some books to pay the bills. I haven’t come this far to screw up now.
Most of my messages are from supportive fans, but when I get to one nasty review aboutSay It Isn’t So, I feel nauseous.
“How could the main character Isabelle be so stupid? I don’t know how your best friend sleeps with your boyfriend RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSE and you’re clueless. I don’t buy the premise of this book. No girl is that big of an idiot. Plus, I can’t get over the fact that she goes out a few weeks later and has a one-night stand. She wouldn’t sleep with her boyfriend for nine months, but she’ll screw some stranger? What a moron.”
I’d like to write her and tell her, yes, people are this stupid. I’m living, breathing proof.
I shouldn’t let this person’s opinion bother me, but it does, which means I have to read her review three more times.
* * *
After class, Harper and I duck into the convenience store on the way home to pick up some half-and-half, a must-have for our caffeine-addicted household. As we reach the counter to pay, she gives me a look.
“What’s wrong, Clem? You’re acting weird.”
Now that I’m standing in one of the shops on the floor level of Warren Towers, I can’t stop thinking about it.
“Last Sunday, Gavin asked me out on a real date, and I think I’m getting cold feet. I mean, he’s a great guy, but…” There’s Angry Red, and Gavin heard my argument with Jax. It’s all too much.
“But you don’t want to get hurt.”
I nod, tears welling up in my eyes, which I blink away.
“I want to bail, but we’re supposed to go out tomorrow night, and it would be really shitty of me to cancel on him now, wouldn’t it?”
After Harper hands the clerk some money, she turns to me.
“You’re going to need to do what’s right for you. It’s not ideal to cancel tonight, but maybe that’s a better option than relapsing into panic-attack mode.”
She gets her change, tucks it into her wallet and twists her lips like she’s thinking. “How about this? Go see him now—make up a reason, any reason—and if you’re still freaked out after seeing him, you can politely back out, face to face. I think having the guts to do it in person makes up for the late notice. On the other hand, maybe seeing him is what you need to relax and be excited about going out with him.”
“You’re a genius.” Hooking my arm in hers, I smile. “But what can I use as an excuse?”
“Just say you thought you forgot something there—a spiral, notes, some lint,” she says, nudging me at her joke.
“Okay,” I say, taking a deep breath. “Will you come with me? Up to his room? You can get a text or a phone call and have to leave right away, but I could use the moral support.”
We walk up to the big glass doors that lead to the dorm. Once we’re in the elevator, my heart starts pounding.
“Relax, Clem.” Harper tightens her arm through mine. “He’s your friend, right? If you decide to not go out tomorrow night, a friend will understand.”
She has a point. If I’m his friend, I shouldn’t bail. I’m chewing on this idea when the doors open to the eighteenth floor. Gavin’s door is open, but there’s no one there, so I knock and call out his name. That’s when I hear the music coming down the hall from the common area.
I let go of Harper’s arm and walk toward the sound of the guitar. When we reach the big open room, I see Gavin softly strumming, while about a dozen students crowd around, listening. His back is to us, and his head is down. Harper leans on my shoulder as we stand in the doorway listening.
His muscles flex through his fitted t-shirt as he plays. He’s such a natural. He plays well, but then he starts to sing, and holy shit, he’s amazing. His voice has a gravelly quality to it, but it’s also somehow soft and alluring.
Harper nudges me, whispering, “Wow.”
Everyone claps and hollers when he finishes. I clap too. Suddenly, the students seem aware that Harper and I are strangers, and their attention on us gets him to turn around. I don’t know what I’m expecting, but the grin on his face melts me and the knots in my stomach. My face breaks into a smile. There’s something so honest and pure about his expression that it makes my chest hurt. How could I have been avoiding him?
He gets up to hug us, but as he’s wrapping his arms around my shoulders, he tilts his head back to look at me.He’s probably wondering what the hell we’re doing here.
“Hey, guys,” he says loudly as he grabs my hand and pulls me into the middle of the room. “You need to hear Clementine. Now this girl can sing.”
“Gavin, I don’t think—”
“C’mon, darlin’. Think of it as payback for all that inspiration.” Then he winks at me.
Damn that wink. I shake my head as I rub the back of my neck.Pull it together, Clementine.
Harper is laughing. I’m trying to pretend I’m cool, but I’m sure the heat on my face gives me away.
Gavin repositions his guitar while he gets one of the guys to pull another chair next to his. He motions toward it, and with an eye roll I sit.
“Any requests?” he asks the room. Immediately, one girl shouts Maroon 5. He snickers. “Fiona, that’s a little high for me. Hmm…” He messes with a few chords, trying to piece together a tune before he turns to me. “Do you know their songDaylight?”
Nodding, I gulp, hoping that sound actually comes out of my mouth when I open it.
He smiles at me, and all of the doubts I’ve been harboring subside. “Great. The verses are low enough, so I’ll sing those, and you can do the chorus, okay?”
“Uh, sure.” Glancing around the room, I finally notice the girls are looking longingly at Gavin, or Murphy, as they call him. In the back, I see Carly wave to me. I grin, glad to see her back in her bubbly state.
Gavin starts playing, and I turn to watch him. There’s something really sexy about how his fingers work up and down the strings.But his voice.Adam Levine is a hard guy to follow, but between Gavin’s playing and the way he works the melody, it sounds fresh. I clear my throat, and on the chorus, I start in.
As I sing the chorus, I feel myself blush more. Thinking about the nights we’ve spent together makes me realize that the pain in my chest, the one that started when I walked in the room, is longing. I’ve missed him.