Authors: Abigail Drake
A Passports and Promises Novel
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, places, or events is coincidental and not intended by the author.
If you purchase this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book may have been stolen property and reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher. In such case, the author has not received any payment for this “stripped” book.
Saying Goodbye, Part One
Copyright © 2016 Wende Dikec
ISBN (ebook): 978-0-9978243-1-5
P.O. Box 135
Beaver, PA 15009
Edited By Lara Parker
Proofread By Anne Marie Stahl and Annie Amsden
Cover Art By Najla Qamber
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To the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Because of you, I learned to speak Japanese, saw the world, and gained a deep love and respect for Japanese culture.
CAS, Class of 1989
Japanese and Economics with a
Certificate in Asian Studies.
Hail to Pitt!
Music pounded in my ears as bodies swayed and pressed against me, the smell of beer, sweat, and cologne permeating the air. I caught a faint whiff of vomit, too. Not a surprise. During freshman rush, all the frats filled with newbies who’d never been away from home, never had a taste of beer. Many of them couldn’t handle it, not that upperclassmen fared much better.
A seasoned sophomore, I sipped my tepid beer with a bored air of sophistication as I watched the crowd, my heels sticking to the mess on the floor and my mini-skirt pressing against my thighs. I’d grown a little tired of all of it. The parties. The drinking. The drama. But I continued to come anyway, mostly because there was nothing else even remotely interesting to do on a Saturday night.
I’d once Googled “Fun things to do on campus that don’t involve drinking.” The results included crafts and sporting events. Please. I’d rather drink than use a glue gun. I’d rather drinkanduse a glue gun. That actually would be kind of fun.
A mild buzz started coming on, and I grinned as a boy dancing next to me tried to impress me with his moves. I danced with him for a few minutes, not wanting to hurt his feelings, but drifted away when he tried to get too close. He reached for me, but I evaded him easily, skirting around the room until I stood with my back against a wall. I hadn’t come here for a hook up, and if I did it wouldn’t be a nameless freshman with a condom tucked hopefully into his wallet next to his shiny new student ID. I had better fish to fry, and I didn’t do one-night stands. Or meaningless make-out sessions. The first one was a rule. The second, more of a guideline, since the word “meaningless” could be open to interpretation.
My sorority sister Bethany approached from one of the outer rooms, a worried frown on her face. “Samantha. I’m so glad you’re here. I can’t find Gabriela.”
Bethany was our SS tonight. Sober Sister. Not an easy job on a night like this.
I rolled my eyes. “Let’s start upstairs.”
Gabriela had been my roommate freshman year when we’d pledged Kappa Alpha Theta together. I’d ended up in a single at the Theta house this year, and she’d moved into an on-campus apartment with Bethany, but we stayed close. The three of us.Los tres amigas,as Gabriela liked to say.
I’d spent last year keeping Gabriela out of trouble, and it looked like I’d be doing the same this year. Losing her virginity while trashed at a frat party would be a huge mistake, and I should know. I happened to be an expert at making huge mistakes. Lots of them. And they all had names.
Mistake Number One was Will. I met him at my very first frat party freshman year. A senior, he’d swept me off my feet and then slowly broke my heart. The last few months we dated had been a painful, ugly dance of me trying to hold on and Will trying to let go.
He was going off to grad school and didn’t want to carry the baggage of a needy girlfriend with him. And I was needy. And annoying. And I cried a lot. It seemed like I spent months with puffy eyes, a red nose, and a tissue in my hands. I was an emotional, ugly, weepy mess. Not my best look.
Eventually, he clipped the vine, refusing to take my calls or text me back. Painful, but the best thing he could have done for me. I hated who I’d become with him and vowed I’d never let myself act like that again. Ever.
Famous last words, right?
I met Mistake Number Two, Rob, while still mourning the loss of Will. I’d gotten an apartment at school for the summer so I could take a few classes, work, and otherwise distract myself. My parents understood, but worried about me because I was so sad. After the break up with Will, I drifted around their house like a ghost whenever I went home.
Rob snapped me out of it. He made everything fun and planned out dates, taking me to interesting places and treating me like a queen. We had picnics in the park, kissed in the shade of a giant oak, and swam at the pool, our legs tangling under the water and our skin smelling of coconut sunscreen.
I liked the way his face lit up every time he saw me. The feeling of being with someone who actually wanted to be with me was intoxicating at first, but it got old quickly. Rob had lots of good qualities, but he was as dumb as a brick. Compared to him, I was Einstein in a push-up bra. Not a nice visual, but accurate.
Rob was cute, though, and muscular, and he smelled good, so I got drunk one night and ended up in his bed. Yes, I set the bar rather high with that one. I slept with him because he smelled nice and I wanted a warm, naked body next to mine. Not my proudest moment. And I can’t even blame the tequila. I knew exactly what I was doing, or at least I thought I did.
I broke up with him the next day.
My friends called him Rebound Rob. I cried for a week after I slept with him, out of guilt and remorse and also confusion since I wasn’t sure whether we actually did the deed or not. I remembered before and after, but during was a little fuzzy. And I woke up fully dressed, which was kind of strange.
I took a vow and decided I’d never to do anything (or anyone) so stupid again, but vows are meant to be broken and only a few short weeks later I ended up with Max. Mistake Number Three.
Max needed me, the most seductive thing in the whole world. His life spiraled slightly out of control, and I wanted to help him. Save him. Sweet, funny, vulnerable Max, who smoked way too much pot and always seemed to be in trouble.
Max didn’t belong to Will’s frat, Delta Tau Delta, or to Rob’s frat, Zeta Beta Tau. I avoided both of those places like the plague. He was a Sig, as in Sigma Alpha Alpha, the rich boys who lived in the biggest house on Fraternity Row. His friends loved me and their girlfriends loved me, but Max and I figured out pretty quickly we really didn’t love each other. The sex was satisfactory, but uninspiring. We were better as friends, but we hooked up on occasion if the need arose. I saw nothing wrong with that. At least I wasn’t increasing my numbers, or making any new mistakes.
Bethany and I strolled through the second floor of the frat, knocking on doors. Eventually, we found Max in his room, sitting with a group of upper classmen and lighting his bong. He waved us in, and I shut the door quickly behind us. Freshman weren’t invited to the pot smoking sessions, and lately everything for Max had become a pot smoking session.
His friends called out a greeting. Pink Floyd played in the background, Max’s music of choice for getting high. I enjoyed the music, but not the fumes.
“Do you want a hit, Sam? For once in your life do you want to do something a little crazy?”
He always teased me, but preferred to keep me away from this part of his life. For all his faults, Max was oddly protective. That may have been one of the reasons I kept going back to him. Over and over and over again.
He winked at me. “I think you secretly like crazy. That’s why you dated me.”
“That’s why Ibroke upwith you. I dated you because you’re good in bed.” That earned a happy grin from Max and some guffaws from his friends, not that they’d remember what I said in the morning.
Max took another hit on his bong. “The craziest people are usually the ones who seem sane.”
Several of Max’s friends nodded in agreement at his vast wisdom. They were all extremely high. I was getting high just being around them.
“Have you guys seen Gabriela?”
Most of them looked confused, but one girl, her eyes half shut, sat up and focused on me. “Is she the little Theta with dark hair? I think I saw her with Zach. Downstairs.”
I looked at Bethany and winced. This could be bad.
We found Zach and Gabriela in the laundry room. She sat on top of a washer completely naked, except for her socks. Zach still had his pants on, but he was in the process of taking off his shirt. We’d gotten there just in time.
Gabriela giggled when she saw us. “We were about to do some wash.Naked.”
Bethany brushed past Zach like a tiny, blond avenging angel. “No naked laundry tonight. It’s time for you to go home.”
Gabriela frowned. “Bummer. But look—I kept my socks on.”
Bethany tried very hard not to laugh. “You were supposed to keep yourundieson, but at least that’s a start.”
Zach didn’t find it amusing. “Hey. We were just having some fun. You two can leave now.”
He tried to get to Gabriela, but I stepped between them. This made him turn a bright, ugly color from his neck up to his red hair. He got horny when he drank, and he also got pretty mean. He tried to push me out of the way, but I held my ground.
“You don’t want to do this, Zach. I’ll report you to residence life. I mean it.”
Zach and I met freshman year, when he’d hit on me rather aggressively and I laughed in his face. He’d hated me ever since. He seemed charming, but he had a nasty side, violence that bubbled just beneath the surface, and I didn’t trust him. I tried to warn Gabriela about him, but she refused to listen, perhaps secretly flattered someone as wealthy and as popular as Zach took an interest in her. I was less than impressed by Zach and his money.
I saw our reflections in the glass door to the laundry room. I stood just as tall as he did, although I teetered on my heels to reach his full six feet. My brown hair hung in soft waves past my shoulders, and my legs looked awfully good, although my mini-skirt was definitely an inch or so too short. I tried to push it down unobtrusively, never breaking eye contact with Zach. He was like a snake. If I didn’t stare him right in the eye, he might lash out.
He swayed, trying to focus on my face. “It’s consensual.”
“Gabriela’s too drunk for it to be consensual.”
I looked over at Bethany and she nodded as she tried to get a rather uncooperative Gabriela back into her clothing. “Back off, Zach. Sam’s right.”
He squeezed my arm so hard I gasped and tried to jerk away, but he wouldn’t let go. I thought he might actually try to hurt me. Although we were in a somewhat public place, and my friends stood right next to me, he frightened me.
I lifted my hand, ready to smack him, even though I knew it would just escalate things. I couldn’t help it. He scared me, and it really pissed me off. When I got pissed off, I tended to react rather than think.
He looked at my raised hand, his face turning an even angrier shade of red. “It’s none of your business.”
I tried to yank my arm out of his grasp again. “I won’t let it happen. I won’t let you touch her.”
I know. I have issues. And the innate ability to make a situation go from bad to impossibly worse in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, I was sort of saved from myself when another brother stumbled into the room with a drunken girl on his arm.
“Yo. Zach. We’re getting raided. You’d better get out of here.”
Zach let go of me, but still seethed. “This isn’t over yet, Sam. Remember that. I always get what I want.”
“Not this time.”
I flicked my hair over my shoulder with more swagger than I actually possessed. Zach took off, cursing me under his breath, and I turned to Bethany, rubbing my sore arm. The music had stopped, replaced by the echo of footsteps as people raced down the stairs. I grabbed Gabriela’s jacket.
“This isn’t good. We have to get her out of here.”
She could barely stand and we were all underage. Bethany hoisted her up, half dragging her to the door.
“You’re right. Let’s go.”
As we started toward the exit, Bethany gave me a panicked look. “I left my purse behind the bar. My ID is in it, and my keys.”
“You take care of Gabriela. I’ll grab it and meet you. Just head straight for the Theta house.”
I went back into the frat, pushing against the crowd like a salmon swimming upstream. I made it to the bar, and reached over it, straining to grab Bethany’s purse on the shelf next to the keg. Max stood by the door.
“Sam? What are you still doing here? The police are on their way.” He pushed me toward one of his brothers, a tall, lanky guy I’d never met before. “Dylan, get her home and make sure she’s safe. I have to go back to my room and take care of…stuff.”
I knew exactly what he meant by “stuff.” Max had enough pot in his room to raise his trouble range from moderate right up to high. No pun intended.
Dylan nodded, his dark hair falling over his forehead. “Sure. Come on, Sam.”
We left through the back door and snuck out an alley just as the police arrived. The sirens wailed in our ears and we stayed to the shadows, moving quickly. I tripped over something and Dylan took my hand, leading me through the dark streets. When we reached a point far enough from the frat, we both heaved a sigh of relief. Between the incident with Zach, and the raid on the frat, my heart rate had accelerated. It took a few minutes for it to get back to normal, and for my breathing to slow down. When it finally did, I looked at Dylan curiously.
“I thought I knew all the Sigs. Are you a transfer or something?”
The shadows from the streetlights made it hard to see him clearly, but I made out a square jaw, dark eyes, and silky hair that hung past his ears and touched the collar of his shirt. Although we’d reached an area closer to the main part of campus, Dylan still hadn’t let go of my hand. It felt kind of nice.
“I wasn’t here last year. I went…away.” He paused, a funny catch in his voice.
“Were you in Spain?” A few of the Sigs had gone for spring semester, but I hadn’t talked with any of them yet.
A whisper of a smile played on his lips. “No. I wasn’t in Spain.”
“Sorry. I don’t mean to be nosy. I’m going to Japan next semester for a study abroad, and I was just curious. I’m leaving in January.”
This caused him to stop walking and look down at me, his eyes searching my face. I was tall for a girl, but Dylan towered over me. His body fit his height, though. He wasn’t too thin or too bulky. Like the porridge in “Goldilocks,” he was just right. And yummy.
“Japan? Why Japan?”
I tucked my hair behind my ear self-consciously. “It’s my major. I’m studying Japanese.”
I never knew how people would react when I told them what I planned to do with my life. I didn’t “look” like a language major. I looked like someone who would eventually be a secretary or a stay-at-home mom or a kindergarten teacher.
Oddly enough, out of all the guys I’d dated, only Rob realized I had a brain beneath all the fluff. Of course, Rob had the IQ of a doorknob, so it wasn’t really a good example, but other people looked at me and saw boobs and a pretty face. Nothing else. Even my high school guidance counselor had tried to convince me to study something more practical. Of course, I didn’t listen.
Dylan handled it perfectly. “You’re an interesting girl, Sam.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic. “Not really, but I’d like tobecomeinteresting. Someday. I want to be a translator, like at the UN, and see the world. I’m applying to the Translation Studies Program at the Institute of Applied Linguistics here on campus, but I don’t know if I’ll get a spot. It’s super competitive, and…I just don’t know.”
“If you really want it, you’re going to do it.”
“How do you know that?”
“There are basically two kinds of people. Those who just sort of fall into things, and those who set a course of action and make things happen.” He gave me a long, steady look. “You make things happen. I can tell. I’m observant about things like that.”
I wondered at first if he’d meant it as a joke, but he seemed sincere, something completely new for me. I couldn’t tell if he was strange or adorable. Maybe he was a combo of the two.
He held onto my hand until we reached the front of my sorority house, a giant, red brick Georgian mansion with white painted accents. Theta was the oldest sorority on campus, and the most popular. We stood outside on the stone walkway, the wind rustling our hair. Dylan stared at me, his gaze hypnotic as his dark eyes searched my face.
“I’m Dylan Hunter.”
He held out his hand to me, like we met for the first time and hadn’t just walked half the campus together. I shook his extended hand, feeling an unexpected tingle of lust curl deep inside my belly.
“Well, that is oddly formal,” I said. “Hi. I’m Samantha Barnes.”
“As in the bookstore?”
I had to smile. In typical Sig fashion, he assumed I came from money. Big money. “Not exactly, although I do love books.”
He touched my cheek. “You have dimples.”
“You’re right. Youareobservant.”
“And brown eyes.”
“Yes. Two of them. They came as a set.”
He chuckled, stepping away from me. “See you soon, Samantha Barnes.”
“You just might.”
He watched as I walked into the Theta house. After I closed the door, I pushed the curtain aside and peeked out the window. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to see if he was still there.
He stood exactly where I’d left him, illuminated by a streetlight, with his hands shoved deep into his khakis and a slow, sexy smile spreading across his face. I let the curtains drop, but not before I smiled back at him.
Bethany sat on a couch in the front room. Gabriela slept next to her, curled up in a little ball. I grabbed a blanket and covered Gabriela before handing Bethany her purse.
“Thanks, Sam. I’m glad we left when we did. She threw up twice on the way home. I managed to get some water and ibuprofen into her before she passed out.”
I ruffled Gabriela’s hair. “Close call tonight. If we hadn’t found her…”
Bethany nodded. “Zach McGaffrey is a pig. I don’t understand what she sees in him.”
“Agreed, but, eventually, she’s going to have to learn to take care of herself. I don’t think this is the last we’ll hear from Zach. You made it personal tonight. If the raid hadn’t happened…” Bethany sighed. “How did you get here, by the way? You didn’t walk by yourself, did you?”
I sank down next to her on the couch. With Gabriela curled up on most of it, there wasn’t much room, but I managed to wiggle in.
“Dylan Hunter walked me home.”
Bethany frowned. “That name sounds familiar.”
“Tall, dark, handsome, funny. A little weird.”
I put my head on her shoulder. “He’s friends with Max.”
“That could be complicated. Why don’t we know him?”
“He wasn’t here last year.” I frowned. He’d never answered my question about that. “It doesn’t matter. I’m leaving soon. The last thing I need is a boyfriend right now. The last thing Iwantis a boyfriend right now. But a little farewell fornication might be fun.”
“Famous last words.” Bethany yawned. “And nearly an alliteration. Can I crash on your floor? I’m too tired to go home.”
We stuck a pillow under Gabriela’s head and went upstairs. I pulled out a futon mattress I kept tucked under my bed, and gave her a blanket and a pillow.
“You’re a good friend, Sam, but you can’t take care of everyone all the time.”
I pulled on my jammies and slid into my bed. “I’m just trying to take care of myself at this point.”
I turned off the light, my mind filled with images as I tried to remember the details of Dylan’s face. I still felt his hand in mine; strong, warm, and solid, but most of what I’d seen of his face had been in shadows. I wondered what he’d look like in the sunshine.
Sighing, I pulled my comforter up to my chin. I barely knew him, but I knew one thing for sure. I shouldn’t get involved with him, but I never listened to my own good advice.
Dylan Hunter was going to be Mistake Number Four.
“Ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. Ra, ri, ru, re, ro.”
I went through my drills in Japanese class, reading the hiragana characters on the board as Dr. Eshima pointed to them. I’d always had a knack for languages. I’d studied French and Latin in high school, but wanted a challenge in college. Japanese was definitely a challenge. With two phonetic written alphabets,hiraganaandkatakana, and thousands of Chinese characters calledkanjias the basis for their writing system, learning to read and write had proved much tougher than I’d expected.
I’d wanted to be a translator my whole life, and chose this school based entirely on the special certification program here, one of the most competitive in the country. If I could get in, I’d start at the school’s Institute for Applied Linguistics my junior year. After three years in the accelerated program, I’d have my master’s degree and my choice of jobs all over the world. The only problem was passing the test. In order to get in, I had to prove proficiency in both spoken and written Japanese. I aced the oral part, but never even got close to passing the written portion. If I couldn’t do it by spring, I was screwed.
I spent hours every day poring over characters and memorizing words. The phonetic alphabets were no problem. Kanji was killing me. I decided to do the semester abroad at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto as a way to make everything come together. Otherwise, I may have wasted two years of my life.
Dr. Eshima, definitely the coolest Japanese teacher I’d ever had with his hipster clothes and spikey hair, made me stay after class. “Sami-san. You can’t be so hard on yourself. If you relax, it will come to you.”
Japanese words almost always ended with a vowel, so I was officiallySami-sanin class. Samantha proved nearly impossible.Sa-man-tu-ra. The other option had beenSamu, which sounded a bit too much like Shamu for my liking.
“There are just so many kanji. There’s no way I can learn them all.”
He laughed. “I’m Japanese and I don’t know them all.”
“I’m never going to pass the test.” I wanted to pound my head against the desk in frustration. “What’s the point?”
“The point is to try.Ganbatte kudasai.”
Ganbattewas one of my favorite Japanese words. It sort of combined “Have courage”, “Don’t give up”, and “Keep trying” with “Go for it.” Japanese was efficient, using one perfect word instead of many, but spoken Japanese wasn’t the problem. Written Japanese gave me nightmares.
I shoved my books into my backpack, tears pricking the backs of my eyes. “Iamtrying. Really.”
He handed me a page of homework that had slipped out of my hands and onto the floor. “I know, but you are trying to know everything all at once. Learn enough to get by in Japan next semester, then enough to read a book or a newspaper. You love Lady Murasaki. Imagine reading her in Japanese. Sometimes the joy should come from the process and not the result.”
Right. Except for the fact I had to take the test for the translation program in April or all my carefully laid plans and dreams would be flushed down the toilet.
I couldn’t tell him that, though. I just gave him a tight little smile and a bow.
“Arigato gozaimasu, Eshima-sensei.”
I left the room, my head down and my thoughts full of the intricate strokes and curves that made up the Japanese writing system. It was hopeless. I was doomed.
I walked straight into Dylan Hunter. He’d been standing right outside the door to my classroom.
“What are you doing here?”
I’d wanted to see him in the sunshine, and I’d gotten my wish. He was even better looking than I remembered, with his black hair, dark eyes, and sexy crooked smile.
“This was the only Japanese III class being offered this semester. I took a chance.”
I hesitated, not sure if this was nice or a little creepy. “Oh.”
He lifted a bag he held in his hand. “I brought lunch.”
His face, so full earnestness, dispelled any worry I had about his creepiness factor. We sat outside and ate the lunch he’d prepared for us; peanut butter sandwiches, apples, and brownies.
“I bought the brownies, but I made the sandwiches myself.”
He handed me a soda. The September sun peeked through the leaves on the trees, warming us as we sat on a stone bench and ate. He turned and straddled the bench to face me. My cheeks got a little hot. I’d barely had time to pull my hair into a bun this morning. I wore yoga pants and a hoodie, and not a touch of makeup. The longer Dylan stared, the more uncomfortable I became.
“Are you still with Max?”
I shook my head. “We broke up weeks ago.”
“But do you still love him?”
I decided the direct and honest approach would work best. “I never loved him and he never loved me. It ended well. We’re better as friends.”
He grinned and the effect shocked me. An odd tingling sensation rushed through my whole body. If his smile could do that to me, I had to wonder what his other parts could do. His lips. His hands. Everything else.
He leaned forward and, for just a second, I thought he might kiss me. Instead, he got really close and stared into my eyes. “That’s good news, Sam.”
“Because I want you to be mine.”
My half-eaten brownie remained clutched in my hand as I tried to formulate a coherent thought. I took a sip of soda and stared at him.
“That’s awfully direct, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “Why pretend? It’s what I want. Why shouldn’t I be honest about it?”
“You hardly know me.”
“I know enough.”
He reached for my hand, lacing my fingers with his. It reminded me of our walk home from the frat.
He let go of my hand and looked at his watch. “I’ve got to go. Can I see you later?”
He gathered up our trash and tossed it into a bin. “How about dinner? Would seven work for you?”
I hesitated only a second before answering. “Yes.”
“I’ll pick you up at the Theta house. Wear a dress.”
I stood next to him, holding my books against my chest. “I’m not sure if this is a good idea...”
He touched my face, his thumb stroking my cheek. “What’s there to be unsure about?”
“You’re a nice guy, but I’m leaving in January. I’ll be in Japan for the whole semester. It would be crazy to get involved with someone right now.”
“It’s dinner, Sam. No worries. No strings. Just food.”
“Just food. I’ll see you at seven.”
As he walked away, I wondered if I’d just made a huge mistake. Things with Max were more complicated than I’d let on. Although I’d told the basic truth about our relationship, I didn’t tell him we still slept together on occasion. Some may have called itfriends with benefits,but really we were justfuck buddies.Not pretty or nice, but honest.
I found Gabriela and Bethany as they left the cafeteria. “Where were you?” asked Bethany. “We didn’t see you at lunch.”
“I ate with Dylan Hunter.”
Bethany’s mouth formed a little pink “O.” Gabriela looked confused. “Who is Dylan Hunter?”
“Mistake Number Four,” said Bethany.
Gabriela swung her head toward me, her brown eyes huge in her face. “You have a Mistake Number Four?”
“But she’s working on it.” Bethany gave me a knowing look, and I swatted her arm.
“When will you see him again?” asked Gabriela.
“Tonight. He’s taking me to dinner.”
“Sweet,” she said. “What are you going to wear?”
I looked at the time on my phone. “I don’t know, but I have nearly six hours to figure it out.”
Five hours and twenty-seven minutes later, I stood in front of my closet in my bra and undies, staring at the contents in a panic. I had absolutely nothing to wear on my date with Dylan. Not a single thing. I began pulling items out one by one, throwing everything onto the floor. I’d just begun to completely freak out when a knock at the door made me jump.
Bethany and Gabriela stood in my doorway, their arms heaped with clothing. Gabriela grinned when she saw the state of my room. “It looks like we got here just in time. Step aside. This is an emergency.”
Within fifteen minutes, they’d chosen an outfit for me, and had begun working on my hair. Gabriela was a hair and makeup genius.
“This isn’t an official date. It’s just food. Dinner. That’s all.” I frowned, thinking about my three Mistakes and wondering if going out with Dylan was a good idea or not. “How many guys does a girl have to sleep with before she’s considered a slut?”
Bethany looked at me in surprise. “You aren’t a slut, Sam.”
“I’m just curious. Is there a number that stands out to you?”
Gabriela thought about it. “If it’s more than five, you need two hands to count them all, and that definitely seems slutty.”
“Says the virgin.” Bethany rolled her eyes.
“And you’ve only slept with one guy, B. I’ve beaten both of you. I’m definitely on the road to Slutterdom.” I let out a sigh. “Gabs is right. Five is a good limit.”
“Give or take,” said Bethany with a snort. Then she saw the expression on my face and her eyes softened. “You’ve already hit number three. Are numbers really that important?”
“Yes, they are.” I folded my arms across my chest. “I mean it. Five is my limit. Gabriela is right.”
“So, I guess that justifies sleeping with Dylan, right?” I heard the note of gentle chiding in Bethany’s voice. I knew she was right.
By the time Dylan arrived at the house promptly at seven, I looked better than my best. My hair hung down my back in soft, shining curls, and the mini dress Bethany loaned me was elegant, expensive, and just a little sexy. The halter neckline showed off my shoulders and the short skirt and navy suede heels made my legs look a mile long. Bethany gave me a sequined shrug to match, just in case it got cold. When Dylan saw me walk down the steps, my outfit had the desired effect. His eyes widened in surprise.
I ducked my head, embarrassed. He wore a suit and looked awfully delicious himself.
Bethany and Gabriela stood at the top of the steps and waved. Bethany had a worried frown on her face that puckered her forehead. Definitely the mother hen of our little trio.
“Don’t be too late,” she said. “It’s a school night.”
Dylan laughed, thinking she made a joke, but I knew she was completely serious. I gave her a very pointed look.
“Don’t wait up.”
He walked me down the tree-lined path in front of the Theta house, not taking my hand. Every so often, his elbow brushed mine, causing an electric tingle to spread across my skin. He snuck glances at me out of the corner of his eye. Finally, he shook his head, flashing me a smile.
“I can’t believe you’re going out with me.”
He shrugged. A new silver Volvo sat at the end of the path on the quiet street of Sorority Row. He pulled out his keys and unlocked the car, the lights flashing in the darkness. I paused.
“We’re driving somewhere?”
He opened the passenger side door. “Yes.”
I stared at him, not sure what to do. “I thought we were eating on campus.”
“I’m not taking a girl like you out for burgers and fries, Samantha.”
“Where are we going?”
He reached for my hand. “Trust me.”
I tried to ignore the voices in my head telling me this could be dangerous. I barely knew Dylan. No one knew Dylan. But Max had felt comfortable enough with him to let him walk me home. Max made lots of bad decisions, but he would never put me in danger.
I let him take my hand and help me into the car, my bare legs sliding against the cool leather interior. Dylan closed the door behind me and got into the driver’s seat, his hands large and confident as he steered the car off campus and toward the center of town. My phone buzzed in my purse as Bethany texted me already.
Are you okay?
I texted back with a smiling emoticon, mostly because I knew she’d worry if I didn’t. After what had almost happened to Gabriela, we were on high alert. The idea of me going on a date with someone I barely knew, in a car, made everyone uncomfortable.
We sailed through the small town, a quiet place dominated by the giant university. Most businesses catered specifically to college students, but others were geared to a different class of people, professors, doctors, lawyers, and people who had money. Dylan pulled up in front of the most elegant restaurant in town, Luigi’s. I reached for the door handle, but he stopped me.
“Don’t touch that.”
I waited as he came around the car and opened the door for me, helping me out, before tossing his keys to the valet. He offered me his elbow and I smiled.
“Chivalry is not dead.”
Something strange, almost like a shadow passed over his eyes. “Not yet, at least.”
On my first date with Will, we’d gone to a comedy show on campus because he had free tickets. My first date with Rob was to a rock concert. We’d been accompanied by a mob of his friends, most of them drunk. On my first date with Max, we went to see a scary movie about a psychopath. The invitation had been casual, and I’d paid for my own ticket and popcorn. It kind of set the tone for our whole relationship.
This first date felt like a real date. A grown-up kind of date. Compared to Mistakes Number One, Two, and Three, Dylan acted like an adult. A nice change, but a thought made me a little curious.
“How old are you exactly?”
We sat at our table, with a gorgeous view of the river. Dylan’s eyes scanned the menu, but he looked up at me with a little smile playing on his lips.
“Much older than you.”
“Like how much?”
He leaned forward. “I’m twenty-two, single, and not a felon.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. “So you’ve only committed misdemeanors.”
He gave me a very hot look. “Crimes of passion.”
The effect of his words shocked me. My entire body responded, especially the area right between my legs. All it took was a few words and a naughty gleam in those dark eyes of his and I was turned on. Completely. He watched me carefully, his gorgeous lips curving into a smile. The bastard knew exactly how he affected me. He enjoyed it.
I decided two could play this game. I turned slightly in my chair and crossed my legs, giving him a view and pulling up my skirt ever so slightly so he could catch a glimpse of my thighs as well.
“See anything you like?”
His gaze shot back to my face, and I raised an eyebrow, holding up the menu. He watched as I chewed on my lip, pretending to study the dinner selections.
He cleared his throat. “Let me choose. I’d like to surprise you.”
He held up a finger and the waiter instantly appeared at our table. Dylan ordered wine, and I wasn’t surprised no one asked for ID. He seemed older than twenty-two. He had an aura about him, a worldliness that most college guys did not possess.
“Is there anything you can’t or won’t eat?” he asked. I shook my head. “My kind of girl.”
He proceeded to order the entire meal. In Italian. My arousal increased exponentially with every word that came out of his mouth. A sucker for all romance languages, Italian happened to be my personal favorite.
“You speak Italian.”
“I lived in Italy for a while growing up.”
I’d been right about the worldly part. And the rich part. He also seemed kind and smart and funny. The perfect date in every way. I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting for him to say something stupid or completely mess up, but he never did. We talked and laughed and enjoyed the best meal I’d ever eaten in my whole life. He asked me lots of questions, and seemed genuinely interested in my answers.
“Tell me about your parents.”
He’d ordered tiramisu and espresso for dessert. I rode on a mild, happy buzz from the wine I’d consumed. The coffee was a very good idea. Dylan’s wine glass had barely been touched.
“My mom is a teacher and my dad an accountant. He works at a power plant.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“One sister. Sophie. She’s still in high school.”
“Do you like your family?”
I blinked. “Of course.”
“Good.” He nodded, like it had been important to him. “I like my family, too. My parents are great, and my brother Jake…”
I waited. It took him a few seconds to answer. He seemed unexpectedly emotional.
“He means the world to me. He’s in high school, too. I miss him.”
Dylan paid the bill, and got angry when I tried to contribute. “It was expensive. At least let me pay the tip.”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “No.”
I reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you, Dylan.”
He brought my hand to his lips, and kissed it, his eyes never leaving mine. My heart did a funny little flip-flop in my chest, something I hadn’t experienced since Will.
I’d thought my heart had been broken so badly it would never come back to life, but I’d been wrong. It had been injured, but not damaged beyond repair, and Dylan Hunter seemed to be just the man to fix it.
We left the restaurant, and I pulled on my shrug. The air had gotten cooler. The valet looked at us expectantly, but Dylan put a hand on the small of my back and led me toward the river.
“Do you want to take a walk first?”
I nodded. The feel of his hand on my back, possessive and yet comforting, made me want to lean against him and rest my head on his shoulder. When we stopped to watch the paddleboats go up and down the river with their lights on and music blaring, I got up the courage and did it. Dylan slid his arm around my waist and held me close, making a sound like a satisfied purr.
I giggled. “You remind me of my cat.”
“What’s your cat’s name?”
“Uh, okay. ‘Fluffy’ was taken, I guess?”
I turned to face him. “Lady Murasaki wrote the first novel. Ever. She’s kind of a literary rock star.”
“Tell me more.”
I went on and on about theTale of Genjiand Lady Murasaki’s life at court. Ancient Japanese history fascinated me. I’d never really studied it in high school, so it was completely exotic, unknown, and interesting.
After I rambled for a few minutes, I gave Dylan a sympathetic look. “You should never have let me have the espresso. I’m talking your ear off. Am I boring you?”
“Never. I could listen to you all day.” He tucked a curl behind my ear and then looked at his watch. “But I’d better get you home or your friends won’t let you go out with me again.”
I pulled my phone out of my purse. I’d turned it off during dinner. I had about ten texts from Bethany and Gabriela, most demanding a response in increasingly threatening language.
“Yep. We’d better go.”
We drove back to the Theta house in silence. Dylan held my hand in the dark car, his thumb stroking my skin and making it a little hard for me to maintain a normal breathing pattern. I thought about inviting him in, but didn’t want to mess this up.
Dylan solved the dilemma for me. He walked me to the door, gave me a very chaste kiss on my cheek, and said goodbye. I stood there, not sure what to do.
“Um. Thank you for dinner.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and grinned at me, his teeth a flash of white it the darkness. “My pleasure, Samantha.”
I had my fingers on the doorknob, but paused. I knew Bethany and Gabriela were probably waiting for me, but I wasn’t ready to go inside yet.
“Is everything okay?”
Dylan’s voice, carried on the night wind, came softly to my ear. Deep and just a bit husky, even his voice did something to me.
I turned around and looked at him. We’d had a perfect first date, but I wanted more.
Worry flashed across his face. “What’s wrong?”
I stomped up to him, standing on my tiptoes so I could pull him close, my hands tangled in his silky hair. I pressed my lips to his. Once. Twice. Three times. With each kiss, I grew bolder, but he remained as still as a statue. I sensed the tension in his muscles and felt the acceleration of his heartbeat beneath my fingers, but he held back.
“I promised you it was just dinner. No attachments. Only food.”
I made a noise that sounded a bit like a growl. “Shut up and kiss me, Dylan.”
I’d given him the permission he needed. He wrapped his arms around my body, pulling me against his warmth, his mouth capturing mine.
Dylan Hunter didn’t kiss like other guys. He didn’t do anything like other guys. Instead of rushing into the kiss, he savored it, exploring my mouth softly with sweet little kisses before tugging gently on my lower lip. When he finally tasted me, his tongue meeting mine in a sweet caress, I melted, moaning into his mouth and pressing against him.
When Dylan ended the kiss, we were both breathing hard. I didn’t want him to stop, but he stepped away, composing himself as he brushed a shaky hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly.
“For what?” My words sounded a little more irritated than I intended due to sexual frustration. A lot of it.
He cupped my face in his hands. “I want to do this perfectly.”
I swallowed hard, finding it difficult to stand this close to him and not kiss him again. “So far, so good.”
He shook his head. “I want you to know I respect you. That means no kissing on the first date, right?”
I covered his hand with mine. “Definitely old-fashioned, but since I was the one who kissed you, I guess that means you’re off the hook.”
He brushed his lips against mine, a butterfly kiss, his mouth barely touching me.
“Goodnight, Samantha Barnes.”
“Goodnight, Dylan Hunter.”
He walked backward to his car. “Dream of me, okay?”
I laughed, but didn’t answer. I knew quite well I’d dream about him all night. He watched me until I opened the door of the Theta house and was safely inside before he drove away. I turned around, my back to the door, and leaned against it, hugging my arms to my chest.
Part of me leapt with excitement to feel this way again, and part of me was filled with dread. I’d been hurt before.
If you can’t swim, don’t jump into the lake.
I rolled my eyes. Now I was hearing the voice of my mother in my head. Great. But, if I were completely honest with myself, she may have been right. I always jumped into relationships before I was ready and always ended up regretting it.
Bethany came out of the kitchen, a tub of ice cream and a spoon in her hand. She skidded to a halt when she saw me. Her hair had been pulled into a messy bun on top of her head and she wore my fuzzy, pink slippers.
“It’s about time. We’ve been texting you all night. We waited here to make sure you got home safely. Why didn’t you answer us?”
“Sorry.” I sighed.
Bethany froze, and then called over her shoulder. “Gabriela. She’s sighing. Get in here.”
They came up to my room as I undressed, carefully placing the beautiful dress back on a hanger. I told them every single detail of the night. When I got to the kissing part, I thought Gabriela might swoon.
“He didn’t want to kiss on the first date? How romantic.”
“More frustrating than romantic, but I got my way and kissed him anyway.”
Gabriela played with the hem of her shirt. “That’s what I want. Love. Romance. If it weren’t for both of you, I would have lost my virginity last weekend on a washing machine. Yuck.” She shook her head in disbelief.
I gave her a squeeze. “Zach is not the kind of person you want to get involved with. Trust me on this.”
“I guess,” she said, brushing her dark curls out of her eyes. “But he’s always been so nice to me.”
“He wants in your pants, plain and simple. But you deserve better,” I said.
Bethany, oddly quiet, sat eating her ice cream. She’d nearly finished the entire tub, a sure sign she was worried. Bethany had always been a stress eater. Fortunately, she had the metabolism to keep up with it.
“What’s the matter, B?”
She winced, I couldn’t tell if it was from brain freeze, or from what she was about to tell me. I pulled on my PJs and sat down next to her on my bed. Bethany poked at the bottom of her empty ice cream container. There was nothing left. Not even a chunk of chocolate. Finally, she let out a sigh.
“Be careful, Sam.”
She nodded. “There is something odd about him.”
She tossed the ice cream container in to the garbage. “Like where was he last year? And why did no one at the Sig house ever talk about him?”
“I’m sure there’s a logical explanation for it. I’ll ask him. Okay?”
Bethany folded her arms across her chest. “You know how you are. Just don’t rush into anything, okay?”
“I won’t,” I said, but we both knew I was lying.
The next few weeks passed in a blur, as I ignored Bethany’s good advice and got closer and closer to Dylan. I’d avoided Max, although he called me a few times and texted me almost every day. I sent him back noncommittal replies, and he never asked about Dylan, so I never mentioned it.
Dylan and I met for lunch every single day, and dinner most nights. We studied together, and on nights when we weren’t together, we chatted or Skyped for hours. Soon, I couldn’t remember what I’d done before he’d been a part of my life. Exactly what I hadn’t wanted. Exactly the sort of relationship I promised myself I wouldn’t jump into.
We never talked about his absence from school the year before. Every time I mentioned it, somehow he changed the subject or avoided the issue altogether. It was frustrating, but he had ways of distracting me.
Our kisses grew more and more passionate, but he refused to let it go any further. He never came to my room, and never invited me to his apartment. I’d become a ball of sexual tension. The only consolation came from the fact he wasn’t much better off than me. The thing that pissed me off, however, was how he controlled it. He controlled everything.
When he picked me up for a date on Thursday night, I’d worked myself into a snit. Neither of us had any classes the next morning. I should have just relaxed and enjoyed the night, but couldn’t.
I put on a long sleeved dress, loose with a bright geometrical pattern. Once again, Dylan refused to tell me where we were going. He planned everything. He chose everything. But I never complained. I allowed it to happen.
I didn’t talk as we drove away in his Volvo. Everything felt off. Everything felt wrong. He tried to start a conversation with me, sending me worried looks as we sped through the city to a place on the far side of town. It was a small restaurant, elegant without being ostentatious, and had only a few tables. Each table was secluded and private. We couldn’t see or hear most of the other diners from where we sat. I should have been thrilled to be in such a place, but mostly I was annoyed. Especially when the waiter brought drinks and soup before we’d even ordered anything.
The soup, served inside a small, carved out pumpkin, looked delicious, but it didn’t help my mood. I shot Dylan an angry look, and he put down his spoon.
“Talk. Please. Tell me what is going on.”
I put down my spoon, too. “You control every freaking thing in our relationship. Occasionally, I’d like to order for myself. You decide where we go, what we do, what we eat, when we kiss. I’m sick of it.”
As soon as I’d said the words, I wished I could take them back. Dylan looked like I’d punched him in the gut.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I wanted to make things special…”
“You can’t make something special. It either is or it isn’t.”
His jaw clenched and his lips drew into a tight, narrow line, but he kept his voice soft. “Are you saying what we have isn’t special?”
I was about to reach for him, but stopped myself. “No, but I can’t even tell how I feel anymore. The fact you ordered the soup for me tonight, without even asking…it’s just the last straw. It needs to be more of a give and take and less of you deciding everything for both of us.”
He raised a dark eyebrow. “You don’t like soup?”
I sighed. “I just want to have a say in things. Where we go. What we do.”
I almost said, “When we sleep together,” but stopped myself. It sounded like emotional blackmail to bring up sex, or our lack of it, during a fight. And this was our first fight.
He leaned forward, folding his hands on the table. “First of all, I didn’t order the soup.”
He shook his head. “The chef only serves a few customers a night. He makes up the menu, and he decides what we’ll eat and drink with each course. It’s a set thing. No options. No substitutions. No complaining. There’s actually never a need to complain because everything here is superb.”
“And I’m sorry I didn’t ask you where you wanted to go. I got into this place last minute, and thought we could celebrate.”
“Our two week anniversary.”
I put my face in my hands. “Oh, geeze. Now I feel like a real bitch.”
He shook his head. “You’re right.”
“I’m a bitch?”
He laughed. “No. When something is important to me, I tend to be a little too…controlling. I’m sorry, Sam.”
I gave him a wobbly smile. “I’m sorry, too. Eat your soup before it gets cold. I’m sure this meal will be expensive, and I know you won’t let me pay.”
“Of course. I can be flexible on a lot of things, Samantha Barnes, but I will not let you pay for dinner, and that’s final.”
Dinner was fantastic, but as the meal progressed, I felt worse and worse. My head seemed fuzzy and strange, and I sneezed several times. By the end of the meal, I could barely keep my eyes open.
As we walked back to the car, I leaned against Dylan. He kissed my forehead, and then pulled back in surprise.
“You have a temperature.”
I touched my forehead with the back of my hand. “I do?”
He nodded, putting his hands on my cheeks. “And you’re flushed.”
I sneezed. Again. “I think I’m getting sick.”
He gave me a droll look. “I think you’re already sick.”
I shivered so badly my whole body vibrated. Dylan turned up the heat in the car. Even though he was probably sweating, I couldn’t seem to warm up.
“Well, this explains one thing.” I huddled in my cardigan, my teeth chattering. Dylan had tossed his jacket on top of me, too, but it didn’t help.
“Tonight. I’m always a bitch when I’m getting sick.”
He chuckled. “Good to know.”
I snoozed as we drove home. I didn’t wake up until the car had stopped in front of a ritzy-looking apartment building, one I’d never seen before.
“Where are we?”
My voice sounded strange, and I felt awful. Dylan got out and walked around the car to open my door. In two weeks, I’d learned never to open a door myself or face the fury of Dylan Hunter.
“My place. You’re staying here tonight.”
He put an arm around my shoulders and steered me into the foyer. I let him. It was easier than arguing.
“Are you being all controlling again?”
“Sorry.” He came to a sudden stop and looked down at me. “Do you want to stay with me tonight, Sam? Will you let me take care of you? Please?”
I sighed, too tired and too sick to put up much of a fight. “Fine. Only because you said please.”
He opened the door for me with a smile. “I’ll remember that.”
Dylan’s apartment, tidy and elegant, didn’t look like a college guy’s place. He had a black leather sofa, actual artwork on the walls, and not a beer in sight. What he did have was an assortment of herbal teas and an electric kettle. After giving me a long sleeved Sigma Alpha Alpha t-shirt to put on, and a warm pair of socks, he covered me with a blanket and handed me a hot cup of tea. It felt good to get out of my dress, and finally I started to warm up.
He’d put lemon and honey in my tea, just like my mom used to do, and made me drink every last drop. He also made me take cough medicine and a vitamin. By the time I finished, my head lolled against his shoulder, and he held me close, keeping me warm.
I woke up the next morning, still curled in his arms, the shy September sun peeking through the windows. I snuggled closer to him. We’d slept on his couch, which probably hadn’t been the most comfortable experience for him. I enjoyed waking up next to him, my bare legs twined with his. At some point, he’d taken off his suit and now wore only an undershirt and boxers.
His lips immediately went to my forehead, like my mom used to do to check my temperature. “How do you feel?”
I kissed his neck. “Much better.”
“You were burning up last night, but I think you’re okay now.”
He sat up, reached for a thermometer on the coffee table, and made me take my temp. Satisfied I no longer had a raging fever, he let me get up to use the bathroom and gave me a spare toothbrush he had tucked in a drawer. Other than a small case of the sniffles, I felt fine. I washed my face and joined him back on the couch, pulling my knees up and resting my head on his chest.
“Thanks for taking care of me last night.”
He ran his fingers through my hair. It was a tangled mess at the moment, but it seemed to fascinate him.
He laughed, and I heard the rumble against my cheek. “No, I meant the actual thing ‘honey.’ It wasn’t an endearment.”
“Why are you talking about honey?”
He stared at a lock of my hair, studying it. “The highlights in your hair remind me of the color of honey.”
“Those were earned, not bought. I worked as a lifeguard just about every summer of my life.”
He stroked my cheek. “Your skin reminds me of honey, too. The way it looks. The way it tastes.”
He kissed the tip of my nose and then put a finger on my lips. “And your mouth. Dear God, Sam, your mouth. I’ve heard the phrase ‘bee stung lips’ before but never knew what they were talking about.”
“Honey. Bees. I’m beginning to notice a little apiology theme going on here.”
“I love the fact you know the word ‘apiology,’ but I love your lips even more. So plump. So perfect. So sweet.”
He stared at my mouth, completely absorbed, as he traced the outline. I opened my lips just a bit and took his finger in, sucking on it gently. When I touched his finger with my tongue, he groaned. That was all the encouragement I needed. I climbed on top of him, straddling him with my thighs. He didn’t protest when I kissed him. He let me take charge. For once. And when I began rocking against him, he pressed back, giving me what I needed.
His hands slid under my t-shirt, caressing my naked breasts. The only thing separating us was the thin layer of my lace panties and the cotton of his boxers, and I was lost in the sensation. He was so hard, and I was very sexually deprived at the moment. I couldn’t have stopped. Not for anything.
He sat up, kissing my neck and panting, his breath hot on my skin. His hands found my hips and he guided me, our pace growing more and more frantic until we both cried out. Even then I rubbed against him, enjoying the fading pleasure, the way he touched me. It was what I’d wanted all along. I kissed the top of his head and he looked up at me with a sheepish grin.
“I just came in my pants. That hasn’t happened since eighth grade.”
He went to change his clothes, and I sat on the couch, waiting for him. He pulled me into his arms and I sighed contentedly.
“We almost had sex, Mr. Hunter.”
“That we did, Miss Barnes. Did you enjoy it?”
I pretended like I had to think about it. He tackled me, pushing me down on the couch and tickling me until I answered him.
“Yes.” My breath came out in gasps. “Now stop.”
He made me breakfast of tea and toast, still worried I might not be feeling well. I was great. Better than great.
“You’re glowing.” His hand shot to my forehead to check my temp again and I giggled.
“I’m not sick. I’m happy.”
He kissed me, his lips tasting like strawberry jam. “I’m happy, too.”
He took me home close to lunchtime. Students milled about in front of the Theta house, and I felt a little shy. Obviously, we’d had a sleepover. I had on my clothes from the night before and my hair was a wreck. It didn’t bother him. He swept me up into kiss that made my toes curl.
“The Sig party is tomorrow,” he said.
“I can’t come. I have a Theta function.”
“Can I see you tonight?” he asked as he nibbled on my lips.
“Yes,” I said between kisses.
“Dinner? At my place?”
After the discussion we had last night, this should have ticked me off, but I was still riding high on the afterglow of the orgasm I’d had this morning. The much awaited orgasm. The one that had been building for two solid weeks. And now there was the possibility of sex. Tonight.
I grinned at him. “Fine, Mr. Bossy Pants. Can I at least help?”
He was about to answer me when Zach McGaffrey approached, a knowing gleam in his eyes. The last person I wanted to see at the moment.
“Dylan,” he said, reaching out to shake hands with Dylan. He turned to me. “And Samantha. What a surprise.”
I gave him a tight smile. I hadn’t seen Zach since the night the frat got raided, and I was still mad at him for how he’d behaved with Gabriela. I also wasn’t ready for the world to know about my relationship with Dylan. I still hadn’t told Max about it. I knew I should have, but it never seemed like the right time.
“Zach.” Dylan kept one arm around my shoulder and greeted him with genuine pleasure as they did the super-secret Sig handshake. It wasn’t actually such a secret. Max showed it to me ages ago.
“Are you two coming to the party tomorrow?”
“I will,” said Dylan. “Sam has other plans.”
Zach’s lips curled up in a smile. “What a pity. See you later, my brother.”
He gave Dylan a pat on the back and took off. A dark cloud of foreboding filled my heart. I didn’t like this at all.
Dylan brushed a lock of hair behind my ear. “What’s wrong?”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Nothing. I just don’t like him very much.”
Dylan shrugged. “He’s okay. We pledged together. We’ve been friends a long time. I’ll pick you up at seven, okay?”
I nodded and he gave me a small kiss on the cheek before he got in his car and drove away. I waved to him half-heartedly. Even Max thought Zach was a jerk, and Max was one of the worst judges of character I’d ever met. My shoulders slumped as I thought of him. It would be wrong if he found out about Dylan through someone else. I needed to tell him before Zach did. I decided to call him as soon as I got back to my room.
Max, happy to finally hear from me after a two-week dry spell, agreed to meet me for a coffee after I finished my afternoon classes. We chatted, the same easy, comfortable way we always had. I loved spending time with Max. He made me laugh, and we understood each other. He wasn’t handsome in Dylan’s chiseled, dark, sexy way, but he was cute, with curly brown hair and freckles on his nose. He’d wrestled in high school, and still had the muscles to prove it.
One of the Sig brothers, a tall blond guy named Jason, walked by and gave Max a high five. “Hey, Max. How are things going, Sam?”
I nodded at him and Max grinned. “What about that meeting this morning, Jason? I couldn’t stop laughing.”
“I know, man. Me, too.” Jason started to giggle. “Meep.”
They said goodbye, but Max couldn’t seem to wipe the grin off his face. “What’s so funny?”
He shook his head. “I really shouldn’t tell you.”
“What is it, Max?”
“It’s brother stuff. You’ll get mad.”
I gave him a steady look. “Just tell me. You know you want to.”
“Okay,” he said, leaning conspiratorially across the table. “Do you know Shannon? Big girl, dark hair?”
“I think so. Is she a DZ?”
He nodded, starting to giggle again. “Well, she hooked up with Joe last night at the Sig house. One of the pledges recorded the encounter.”
“What do you mean?”
“He put his phone in Joe’s room and recorded them having sex. It was dark, so you can’t see anything, but the audio…” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I guess she was on top, and right in the middle of it, she farted. Honest to God. It sounded like what Jason said.Meep.Weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. And then she said, ‘Excuse me,’ all lady-like and proper, and can you guess what Joe did?”
“I can’t even imagine.”
“He said, ‘It’s fine. Just ride me, baby.’ And they continued on from there. It was freaking hilarious.” He was about to start laughing again, but froze at the look on my face.
“Not cool, Max.”
“Come on, Sam. It’s no big deal. Joe didn’t care.”
“I’m sure Shannon did. Do you guys do this all the time?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head, but I could tell he was lying. I stared at him until he confessed. “Well, maybe once or twice. It’s just a pledge thing.”
“Did you ever record…us?”
He sat straight up. “No way, Sam. You know I’d never do that.”
“Joe didn’t do it. The pledge did it.”
“Look. You’re not like Shannon. She was just there for a hook-up. You’re special, and the other brothers know it.”
“Special, huh? That’s what all the boys say.” I took a long sip of coffee, staring at him over the rim of my cup. A moment of silence hung in the air as he studied my face.
“So do you have something to tell me, Samantha?” he asked with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
I paused, my coffee clutched in my hand. “You know?”
He leaned back in his chair, a satisfied grin on his face. “Of course, I know. I kind of suspected you were seeing someone, but Zach confirmed it a few minutes before you called. He seemed very eager to share the news.”
“I’m sorry, Max. I should have told you sooner.”
“It’s fine. Honest. Although, I will miss our three a.m. booty calls.” I blushed and he gave me a pointed look. “Not that any of them were ever recorded by anyone.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thank heavens for small miracles, I guess.”
He reached for my hand, being sincere for the first time in a long time. “Are you happy?”
I had to ponder it for a moment before I could really give an answer. “Yes. I think I’m happy. I’m just not sure yet.”
Max stirred his coffee, sneaking a glance up at me from between his lashes. He had the most gorgeous lashes. Charcoal black, long, and thick. I’d told him many times no guy deserved to have lashes like that, and it was the truth. Between the lashes, the freckles, and his sweet, pleasant nature, Max was pretty adorable. I’d just never gotten used to all the pot smoking and drinking, and I never cared for him the way I did for Dylan. Max was a bubbly, fizzy soda. Dylan a long, rich sip of red wine, sophisticated and intoxicating.
“How well do you know him, Sam?”
Max never skirted around issues. He’d always been completely open with me, maybe even too open. Something about his words seemed odd. He was trying to be discreet, a new flavor for Max.
“I met him the night you asked him to walk me home. Why?”
He still wouldn’t meet my eyes, and alarm buzzers when off in my head. “Just be careful. Take it slow.”
“You’re the second person to tell me to be careful.” I decided to brush it off. “I’m leaving in a few months anyway. I’m not looking for something serious.”
“Does Dylan know that?” Max’s eyes searched mine. “If not, you need to tell him, and soon. He’s not…”
“He’s not what?”
Max sighed. “He’s a good guy.”
“Why do I feel like there’s a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence?”
He hesitated. I saw emotions churning on his face before he gave me a lazy smile. The famous Max Miller smile. The one he used to show he didn’t have a care in the world. I knew better. I also knew he had a stubborn streak. I wouldn’t get any answers unless Max wanted to give them.
“Maybe I’m just jealous.”
He laughed. “Alittle. I knew this would happen, eventually. I just didn’t realize it would be Dylan Hunter.”
“I’m stronger now. He’s not going to break my heart. I won’t let it happen.”
Max paid the bill and then stood to put on his jacket. He gave me a small kiss on the head. “For once, sweet Sam, it’s not your heart I’m worried about.”
Dylan picked me up promptly at seven. He had on dress pants that hugged his bottom and a soft shirt with the top few buttons open. His dark eyes lit up when he saw me.
I grinned, feeling very sexy and mature in a silver dress I’d borrowed from Bethany and high, strappy heels. What Dylan couldn’t see was I also had on black lace undies and a matching push up bra. The dress was low cut enough it showcased my boobs in their currently very pushed up position. I had a decent amount of cleavage, but tonight my cups literally overflowed. I looked voluptuous.
Dylan froze when he saw me. “Sam…” he began, then he put a hand to his chest and exhaled slowly. “I couldn’t breathe for a minute.”
I ducked my head as shyness overtook me. I’d gotten the reaction I hoped for, but sometimes Dylan was too intense, his gaze too honest and probing. Part of me wanted to hide. The other part, the bigger, braver part, embraced it. Reveled in it. That part made me saunter over to him, slide my hand up his chest and around his neck, and pull his head down for a slow, sultry kiss. When I stepped away, he looked dazed. He actually shook his head to clear it before reaching for my hand and bringing it to his lips.
“I have a surprise waiting for you. I think you’ll like it.”
The whole way to his apartment I bugged him about the surprise. “Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“All of the above.” He flashed me a grin. “No hints. You’ll see soon enough.”
I sat back in my seat with a huff, but I was just playing with him and he knew it. “Is it cake? I hope it’s cake.”
“It might be cake.”
I shot him a smile. “I guessed it.”
He gave me a noncommittal shrug as he steered the car into a parking place. The doorman greeted us as we walked through the elegant foyer. The marble floors sparkled as soft music played in the background, and everything, from the subtle lighting to the velvet chairs, screamed “money.” Dylan probably didn’t hear it. He’d been around it his whole life, so I had to guess he was used to it.
In the elevator, he pulled me close and gave me a hot kiss. His lips lingered on my neck, and then dipped lower to kiss the soft skin of my exposed breasts. I arched against him, wanting his mouth everywhere, wanting him closer. The elevator ride proved way too short for any kind of serious make-out session. Dylan grabbed my hand and led me to his apartment.
The lights were dim, and my eyes went immediately to his dining room table. He’d covered it with a black tablecloth and set it with white plates and cloth napkins. A bouquet of red roses sat in a vase in the center, surrounded by white candles.
“Oh.” I nearly melted on the floor like the wax from the candles. “This is the best surprise. Thank you, Dylan.”
He laughed. “This isn’t the surprise.”
He’d ordered a five-course meal from a local French restaurant and had it delivered. After pouring each of us a glass of champagne, he served the food, heating up each course in the kitchen. As he brought out the main course, he switched to red wine and my head got a little fuzzy. He watched me carefully, gently pushing the wine glass aside and handing me ice water. I sipped it gratefully. Getting drunk was not my goal tonight or the reason for this meal. I knew it and so did Dylan.
The grand finale was a decadent chocolate layer cake that made me groan. “This is so wonderful. Thank you, Dylan.”
His dark eyes stared into mine as he sipped the last of his wine. He pulled a small box out of his pocket and put it in front of me on the table. The box, imprinted in gold with the name of an expensive jewelry shop, made my heart stop.
I paused, my fork midway to my mouth. “What’s this?”
He gave me a crooked smile. “The steak was the animal, the salad the vegetable. This is the mineral.”
I put down my fork. “You got me a present?”
“Just open it, Sam.”
I opened the package with trembling hands. Inside was an elegant silver disc, hanging from a chain, inscribed with the words,She walks in beauty, like the night.Small stones, I suspected diamonds, sparkled next to the words like stars in a night sky.
Dylan watched me closely. “It’s my favorite poem, and it made me think of you.”
I swallowed hard. “Lord Byron.”
His face lit up. “You know it?”
“Yes. It’s my favorite, too.”
He came around the table I lifted my hair, allowing him to drape the necklace around my throat and clasp it. I walked over to a mirror to admire it, and he stood behind me, his eyes on the silver circle perched just above the valley between my breasts.
“It’s beautiful, but you shouldn’t have. It isn’t my birthday.”
He turned me around to face him. “Life’s too short. Why wait for birthdays?”
“But I don’t have anything for you.”
He brushed my hair over my shoulder and caressed my jawline with his thumb. “You’re my gift, Sam. Everything I’ve ever wanted.”
I twined my arms around Dylan’s neck, pressing my lips against his. He groaned and opened his mouth to me, his tongue sending shivers of desire racing through my body. Soon my breathing turned erratic, my hands tangled in his hair.
He lifted his head, his face flushed, and traced the outline of my lips with his fingertip. “Sweet-like-honey Samantha Barnes. Are you sure this is what you want?”
I nodded, unable to speak, the prolonged anticipation almost unbearable. I’d wanted him for weeks. I couldn’t wait any longer.
He cradled my face in his hands and kissed the tip of my nose. “Close your eyes and count to one hundred. Slowly. Then come back to my room.”
I looked up at him and scowled. “Seriously?”
He grinned. “Humor me.”
“Fine.” I folded my arms across my chest and tapped my foot as I counted. “One, two, three…”
I let out a huff. “Ichi, ni, san, shi…”
I heard Dylan rushing back and forth, but had no idea what he was up to. I forced myself to count slowly. “Ni-jyu, ni-jyu ichi, ni-jyu ni…”
By thirty,san-jyu, I started thinking about the way he’d kissed me in the elevator, his lips lingering on my breasts. By fifty,go-jyu, I remembered the way I’d rocked against him this morning until we both came. By ninety,kyu-jyu,I imagined exactly what I’d do to him in ten more seconds. As soon as I hit one hundred,hyaku,I opened my eyes and followed a trail of red rose petals down the hall to Dylan’s bedroom.
He stood in the middle of the room, a rose in his hands. Candles provided the only light in the room. Dylan’s face, contorted by the shadows of the flickering candles, looked odd at first, like the face of a stranger.
He prowled toward me, his feet silent on the plush carpet, reminding me of a black jaguar in the jungle. His steps were slow, measured, his eyes locked on mine. My heart hammered in my chest and I found it hard to breathe. Rose petals covered the floor and the black comforter on his bed, but I could only look at Dylan.
He handed me the rose and I took it, crying out as a thorn pricked my skin. His face changed immediately from polished seducer to awkward boyfriend. He threw the rose aside, watching as blood pearled on my finger.
“Sorry, Sam.Thatwas smooth.”
He took my finger into his mouth, sucking on it. I felt the pull of his lips deep inside my body, all the way down to the area right between my legs.
“It’s okay. Really.”
My voice sounded odd, even to my own ears. Dylan’s eyes fixed on mine. My finger was still locked in the sweet warmth of his mouth, and he used his velvet tongue to gently caress me. I stared at him, mesmerized, until he finally released my finger and captured my mouth a slow, passionate kiss.
“You like that, don’t you, Sam? My sweet, kinky girl. I wonder what else you like. I guess we’ll have to find out.”
I tasted the metallic tinge of my own blood on his tongue, and teetered on a cliff somewhere between apprehension and desire. He sounded like he was back in charge again, and I didn’t know how I felt about it. I ran my fingers through his hair, trying to push the bad feelings aside. It worked. Soon, all I could think about were his lips and the hardness of him as he pressed against me.
He pulled back and inspected my finger. “No lasting damage?”
I shook my head, too wound up to speak. He watched my face with a satisfied gleam in his eyes.
He ran his fingers slowly down the side of my neck and over my shoulder, studying me closely the whole time. Then he followed the same path with his lips, kissing me softly. Worshiping my skin. He pushed down my dress, revealing the soft swell of my breasts. With the dress hanging off my shoulders, most of my chest was already exposed to him, but it wasn’t enough.
“I need to get you out of this.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. I put my hands behind my back, trying to reach for the zipper, but he stopped me, turning me gently with his warm hands.
“Let me do it.”
He unzipped me slowly, his lips pressing against each inch of exposed skin. He let the top of the dress fall forward, the bottom half barely clinging by my hips, and pushed my hair aside to kiss the curve of my neck. He slid his hands around my waist, his front pressing against my back, and cupped my breasts in his hands.
“Oh, God, Sam. You feel so nice.”
I laughed, a strange, shaky sound. “You feel pretty good, too.”
He pushed my dress down to the floor, leaving me exposed in front of him, wearing nothing but black lace and high heels. My breasts moved up and down, nearly popping out of my strapless bra as I tried to catch my breath. All he’d basically done was look at me, and I panted like I’d run a race.
“You are so fucking beautiful. Do you realize that?”
I bit my lip. “Stop looking and take off your clothes, Dylan.”
He grinned and began unbuttoning his shirt. “Your wish is my command.”
Dylan’s body, the perfect mix of hard angles and smooth muscles, had been the object of many of my fantasies over the last few weeks. The reality proved so much better than my imagination. I hadn’t realized he’d have a sprinkling of dark hair leading in a trail straight down to his boxers. I didn’t know he had a birthmark at the bottom of his rib cage. Now I had an almost overwhelming desire to kiss that birthmark, over and over again, but Dylan had other ideas as he guided me to the bed.
“Sit down, Sam.”
His voice, a raspy purr, sent shivers across my skin. I perched on the edge of the bed, and the shivers increased when he lifted my legs one at a time so he could unstrap my shoes. Then he removed my undies and unhooked my bra, kneeling to caress my breasts and worship them with his mouth. I watched him, mesmerized. When he stood and let his boxers drop to the floor, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
“What do you want, Sam?”
“You. Just you. I can’t wait anymore.”
He grabbed a condom from the bedside table and put it on, his muscles tense. I opened my legs to him and he nestled between my thighs. When he thrust inside me, I gasped and grabbed onto his hips. He filled me so fully I became a creature of pure desire, my body taut as I rose up to meet every thrust. All I could think about was Dylan and the pressure between my legs, and we danced closer and closer toward release.
When I came, it shattered me. I actually saw stars, something I’d read about but never experienced, bright flashes of pure white light shooting behind my eyelids. Dylan followed closely behind me; shouting out his release like it was a wild animal that had been caged deep inside him for too long.
Afterwards, as he pulled the covers over me and held me close, rose petals flew like leaves in a tempest. I grabbed one, rubbing my fingers over its velvety softness and bringing it to my nose to catch the last whiff of its sweet scent.
Iwoke up wrapped in Dylan’s strong arms. He grinned at me as soon as I opened my eyes, a lazy, playful grin. A cat-that-ate-the-cream sort of smile.
I ran my hands up and down his naked back and gave him a sleepy kiss. “Mmmmm. Good morning, Mr. Hunter.”
“A lovely morning indeed, Miss Barnes.” He pushed my hair away from my face to stare into my eyes. “What are we going to do today?”
I stroked his scruffy cheek. “Wearen’t doing anything.Ihave to get ready for the Theta function tonight. I’m on the committee.”
“Do you have to?” He kissed my fingers one by one. “We could go to the Sig party together.”
“I can’t. Mary Grace and the entire recruitment committee would skin me alive. Have you seen Mary Grace? She’s a little blond tyrant dressed in pink.”
I shot a glance at the clock and slid out of his bed. He grumbled and tried to pull me back in, but I grabbed a sheet to cover myself and giggled as I walked to the bathroom. Dylan’s eyes were on me the whole time. He wasn’t happy about the situation.
“At least let me make you breakfast.”
I gave him a wink and dropped the sheet. “Or you could shower with me instead.”
He didn’t need a second invitation. He jumped out of the bed and sprinted across the room, pulling me into the shower. I squealed as the cold water hit me. He blocked the spray with his own body, moving away only once it had heated up.
I grabbed the soap and gave him a very saucy smile. “You’ve been a dirty boy, Dylan.”
I lathered my hands and ran my fingers over his chest. The feeling of his soapy, sexy skin was an immediate turn on. I leaned close and rubbed against him, enjoying his gasp of pleasure when my nipples touched his chest. He lifted me, my back against the wall, and I wrapped my legs around him as he entered me. I clung to him, holding him around the neck as he thrust slowly in and out. It was the most exquisite kind of torture. When we came, we came together, with an intensity that shocked both of us. Dylan’s knees wobbled and he sank down to sit in the tub while still inside me. He nestled his face in the curve of my neck and kissed me until our hearts stopped finally racing.
“We didn’t use a condom.” His words, muffled by the sound of the shower, had just an edge to panic to them.
I didn’t tell him I was on the pill, my own personal safety net. I figured out early on if guys knew I was on the pill, they thought it meant they didn’t need to use condoms. Since the pill was not one hundred percent reliable, and didn’t keep you safe from a bunch of nasty diseases, I preferred to use both.
Will had given me a little attitude about it. I didn’t want to have the same issues with Dylan. I never told Rob or Max I was on it. I decided not to tell Dylan either. Instead, I stroked his head and kissed him softly.
“This is my safe time of the month.”
He looked up at me, the water streaming down his face. “Is there such a thing?”
“My period is due any day. It’ll be okay.”
We stood up and finished showering. Dylan went to make breakfast, and I dug around in his bathroom for a hairbrush. My hair was a tangled mess and I knew it would eat Dylan’s comb alive. I opened his medicine cabinet and stepped back in surprise. The entire thing was filled with prescription bottles, all with Dylan’s name on them.
I picked one up with a shaky hand, and then another. I didn’t recognize the names of anything in his cupboard. A sharp stab of worry pierced my heart. Even my grandmother didn’t take this much medicine and she had every ailment known to man.
“Hurry up, Sam. Breakfast is almost ready.” Dylan’s voice came from the kitchen, startling me. I closed the door to the medicine cabinet quietly and stared at my reflection in the mirror. Something was wrong with Dylan. Something was very wrong. But I didn’t know how to even bring it up.
“I’ll be there in just a second.”
I combed my hair as best I could and pulled it up into a messy bun. I’d borrowed one of Dylan’s t-shirts and a pair of sweats. I had to roll up the sleeves of the shirt and the waistband of the pants several times in order to walk.
He wrapped his arms around me and kissed my shoulder when I came into the kitchen. “That was possibly the best shower I’ve ever taken.”
I giggled and slid into a chair, but couldn’t quite meet his eyes. He put a plate in front of me and watched me closely. Dylan had a sort of radar sense when it came to my moods.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded, taking a bite of the scrambled eggs and toast he’d set in front of me. “I just have a lot to do today.”
He poured me some coffee and I gave him a grateful smile, pushing the image of the pill bottles from my mind. I wasn’t ready to ask him about them yet. Part of me just didn’t want to know, but I wondered if all those pills were somehow connected to his absence last year. It was a lot to process.
Dylan dropped me off at the Theta house. I gave him a quick kiss and promised to meet him for breakfast the next morning. As I jogged to the house, I had to hold his sweats up with one hand as I clutched my dress over my arm with the other.
I looked ridiculous in heels and sweats, but lucked out and no one saw me. Most of the girls were already decorating for the party, so I avoided any uncomfortable questions. I changed my clothes quickly and ran down to help.
I was so busy I barely had the chance to think about Dylan all day. A few times I paused, remembering what we’d done with a loopy smile on my face, but Mary Grace usually snapped me out of it by barking a command. We had little time and a lot to accomplish, and although the pill bottles worried me, I convinced myself Dylan was fine and probably had a very good explanation for it. Instead, I focused on creating a fall fantasyland out of fake flowers and leaves in shades of gold, orange, and red. Before I knew it, it was time to get dressed up again and face the masses.
The party was a roaring success. We had a record number of girls interested in joining this year, and the Theta house was filled to the brim. As a member of the recruitment committee, I had my hands full.
Joining a sorority was nothing like rushing a frat. It involved dresses and tea, not beer. Never beer. No alcoholic drinks were served at all, in fact. The girls perched eagerly on their chairs, eyes wide and makeup perfect, as our president, Mary Grace, extolled the virtues of being a Theta. Then we had a formal meal in the dining area of the house. We’d spent most of the day decorating with twinkle lights and fall colors, and the effect was magical. Later, at the social, we mingled and chatted. I took notes regarding which girls fit the Theta mold and which didn’t. Mary Grace snuck a peek at my notes and snorted.
“Sam. We can’t let every single girl in.”
I twisted my pencil in my hand. “I know, but they all seem so nice. And eager.”
She raised a perfectly arched blond eyebrow at me. “Being a Theta isn’t just about being nice. We have an image, and it has to be upheld. Speaking of which, where is Gabriela? She’s supposed to help tonight.”
“She was just here.” I looked around with a worried frown. I hadn’t seen her since dinner. I snuck a glance at my watch. It was after midnight. “I haven’t seen Bethany in a while either.”
Mary Grace sighed. “I guess it’s just us, then. It’s going to be a long night. Put on your comfiest clothes and meet me back down here in twenty minutes. We have to send out the first round of bids tomorrow.”
I checked my phone on the way up to my room. Dylan had called several times, but hadn’t left a message. Bethany and Gabriela had both texted me. Bethany apologized for leaving me alone with Mary Grace, even though she wasn’t even on the committee. Gabriela encouraged me to leave, mostly using emoticons. Gabriela was fluent in what might be the texting form of hieroglyphics.
I sighed and tossed my phone on the bed. I’d have to deal with Mary Grace and all the bids on my own. I pulled on some yoga pants, stuck my hair into a ponytail, and sped down the steps. I didn’t want to keep Mary Grace waiting, and after hanging fall leaves and twinkle lights all day, I was exhausted. Finishing up quickly would send me back to my warm, soft bed sooner rather than later.
We sat in the conference room, munching on leftover snacks from the party and going over the list of PNM, Potential New Members. The other sisters had already turned in their nominations, and left notes about each candidate. It didn’t take as long as I’d expected. I didn’t want to leave anyone out, but Mary Grace had a ruthless streak. She also selectively ignored chapter rules about not saying anything negative about any of the girls, which seemed odd considering she should set the standard as president. I decided we were both too tired to be overly concerned about rules at the moment. We wanted to get done and go to bed. Mary Grace’s eyes scanned the papers in front of her as she divided the applications into piles.
“She’s a moron. No.” She reached for page after page. “Too slutty. Too chatty. Too…annoying.”
I laughed out loud at that one. “What are we looking for exactly?”
She sighed. “People you can stand being around on a daily basis for the next few years or your life. Think about it, Sam. Would you want to have to deal withthisfor the next two years?”
She held up the application and I looked at the photo, remembering how that particular girl had interrupted others repeatedly during dinner and bragged about her father’s business.
“You’re right. Too annoying. But I liked this girl.”
I held up a photo of a girl named Emma. Tiny, with curly blond hair and big blue eyes, she’d been sweet and friendly and really funny, too. And she was a Japanese major. We’d clicked instantly.
Mary Grace’s eyes lit up. “Emma Turner Tinsdale. Exactly. She’s the kind of girl we’re looking for. Now you’re catching on. Nice job, Sam.”
After that, it became easier. There were several legacies, most of them really nice. We finished their applications first, and all of them got a bid. Then it was just a matter of figuring out which girls definitely showed Theta potential. We filled our quota for early bids in only a few hours.
“I’ll hand these off to Candace tomorrow, and she’ll notify the girls right away,” said Mary Grace. Candace was our secretary, and very on the ball.
I stood up and stretched. “Thanks, Mary Grace. That proved to be a lot less painful than anticipated.”
She laughed, and then her face grew serious. “I’m going to have to give Gabriela demerits for this.”
She stood and put the applications into separate folders, one for the girls who would get bids tomorrow and respond with squeals and a lot of jumping up and down. The other for the girls who would cry and pout and immediately start focusing on another sorority, something they really should have done in the first place.
I helped her shut off the lights, and was about to climb the staircase, but she stopped me in the foyer. “I’m planning to nominate you for president next year.”
I almost tripped over my own feet. “But I’ll only be a junior.”
“There aren’t a lot of girls who exemplify what it is to be a Theta, and there are certainly none of them in this year’s junior class.”
I thought about the sisters who were a year older than me. They were definitely a bunch of partiers, and several were on academic probation, meaning they couldn’t run for office or attend Theta functions. Mary Grace was in a pickle.
“I’m studying abroad next semester…” I began.
“Another thing in your favor. I’ve thought about this long and hard. You’ll be an excellent president, Sam, and I know everyone else will agree with me.”
I smiled and shook my head as I climbed the steps. Getting a vote of confidence from Mary Grace came as a welcome surprise. I never thought she really liked me very much. This was an honor, and Mary Grace was right. I would be an excellent president. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon. If elected, I’d be the first junior chosen as president in our chapter’s one-hundred-year history. I couldn’t have asked for a better thing to put on my resume.
I brushed my teeth and climbed into bed. I’d just fallen asleep, when my phone rang, startling me. At first I couldn’t find it, and had to turn on the light. It had gotten tangled in my covers. I answered it just before it went to voice mail.
“Where are you?” Dylan’s voice was strange and cold.
“In my bed.” I looked at the clock on my nightstand. “Why are you calling me at three in the morning?”
“Are you alone?”
His voice had gone from cold to outright hostile. I wanted to hang up on him, but instead I crawled back into bed, my phone cradled against my ear.
“Of course, I’m alone. What are you talking about?”
“You went out with Max yesterday.”
“I had a coffee with Max. I didn’t ‘go out’ with Max.”
“Why are you meeting him for coffee?”
I didn’t like how this conversation was going. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I wanted to tell him about us before someone else did.”
He let out a breath. I heard the relief in it even over the phone. “Okay.”
I was fully awake now and fully ticked off. “Okay? Really? I’m so glad to have your permission. I can’t believe you’re calling me at this hour to accuse me of something I didn’t do. What’s wrong with you, Dylan?”
“Jason told me he saw you with him at the coffee shop.”
“He did, and I have nothing to hide, which is why I never even thought to mention it.”
“So where was Max tonight?”
“I have no idea. Knowing Max, he was probably in his room smoking pot. It’s what he does at every Sig party.”
He still didn’t sound convinced. “I guess.”
“I’m hanging up now, Dylan.”
I groaned. “I’m tired. I want to go to sleep. What do you want from me?”
He was quiet so long I thought he might have hung up. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft and pleading. “You. I just want you. Being with you makes everything so much…better.”
I snuggled deeper into the covers and turned off my light. “Then you’re going to have to trust me.”
A siren wailed outside. I heard the siren through Dylan’s phone, too, making a chill wash over me. I lifted the blinds of the window next to my bed. A lonely, dark figure stood in the middle of the sidewalk. I let the blinds drop.
“Are you standing outside the Theta house right now?”
“No. I’m walking back to my apartment.”
I snuck another glance outside. The figure was gone. I knew it had been Dylan. He’d just lied to me.
“Are we still meeting for breakfast?” he asked.
I played with a lock of my hair, not sure what to do. Other girls may have found his jealousy charming. I didn’t. But I had to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Fine, but it’ll have to be later since you kept me up half the night.”
I heard the smile in his voice. “I’ll pick you up at eleven. It’ll be brunch.”
As I hung up the phone, I realized I needed to have an honest and open discussion with Dylan if this was going to go any further, and it would have to be soon. I curled up on my side, safe and warm in my bed, but all night I tossed and turned, dreaming of dark figures lurking on the sidewalk and hearing his words over and over again and shadows reached for me, trying to grab me with their sharp claws.
I just want you. I just want you. I just want you.
Iwoke up crabby. I showered and pulled my damp hair into a bun, not in the mood for any nonsense. I dressed in a pair of faded jeans and a warm sweater, and threw a scarf around my neck. I didn’t bother with makeup. I grabbed a pair of sunglasses and slipped into my shoes. Dylan already waited for me downstairs.
“Hi,” he said softly. He had on jeans, too, with a grey Sigma Alpha Alpha hoodie.
I glared at him, sunglasses perched on my nose. “Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want.”
Now he was being accommodating? I blew out a sigh. “Let’s just go to the Bistro.”
The Bistro, a casual restaurant only a block away, had a fun, fifties vibe and really good food. They served breakfast all day, a bonus for college students.
We walked side by side, not touching or talking. The sunny weather didn’t match my mood. We sat in a booth and ordered our food, and then I pushed my sunglasses up onto my head and glared at Dylan. The fact that he looked hotter than the pancakes served at the Bistro didn’t help. It just made me madder.
“We need to talk about last night.”
He shoved his hands into the pocket of his hoodie. “I know. I was out of line, I guess.”
“You guess? And you lied to me. I saw you standing on the sidewalk.”
He didn’t bother denying it. “Can I be totally up front and honest with you, Sam?”
“That would be nice.”
I baited him and I knew it. I wanted to fight. I hadn’t slept well and didn’t like the way he sounded on the phone last night. It had been controlling and a bit creepy.
He ran a hand through his dark hair as he made an obvious effort to compose himself and control his temper. He took a deep breath.
“There are parts of me I don’t want you to see. Ugly parts. Jealous parts. Parts that call you at three in the morning and accuse you of things you haven’t done.”
“Yes. I met those parts last night. I don’t like them.”
“I don’t like them either. But I like you. A lot. I’ve liked you since the first moment I laid eyes on you.”
“At the frat? When I leaned over the bar to get Bethany’s purse?” I frowned. His speech had touched me, but I wasn’t quite ready to let him off the hook. “So what you’re telling me is you saw my ass and that was it?”
He chuckled. The waitress brought our pancakes and refilled our coffee. He waited until she was done before he continued. “That was the second time I saw you, and, yes, the ass was impressive.”
I swallowed a bite of pancake and stared at him. “When was the first time?”
He looked so deeply into my eyes, like he touched my very soul with his gaze. “The first time you sat all alone under a tree. You were reading a book, playing with a strand of your gorgeous hair, and smiling.”
“Yes. You had the smallest, sweetest smile on your lips, like not only the book was funny but life was funny, too. Like you knew things other people didn’t.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You got all this from watching me read a book for two minutes?”
He leaned forward, his knife and fork poised above his plate. “It was more than two minutes. I watched you at least an hour that day. I couldn’t stop myself.”
I remembered that afternoon well. The last golden day of summer, right before classes started and life got chaotic again. I’d picked up a book I’d been dying to read, grabbed a blanket, and planted myself under a shady tree. It had been an indulgence, because I had lots of other things I should have been doing with my time, but the sweet warmth of the day called to me. I never realized someone had been watching me.
He continued. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable. Do you know what I wanted when I saw you that day?”
I shook my head. My pancakes were getting cold, but I couldn’t have cared less.
“I wanted to be that book.”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “What?”
He leaned forward even farther, his voice soft. “I wanted to put my head on your lap and stare up at your beautiful face. I wanted you to smile down at me the same way you smiled at that book.”
“You did?” Suddenly, it was a little hard to breathe.
“I want you, Sam, so much, and I haven’t wanted anything in a very, very long time.”
“I love you, Samantha Barnes.”
“I love you, too.”
The words flew out of my mouth before I could stop them. The sad part was they weren’t true. I didn’t love Dylan. I liked him. I enjoyed sleeping with him. But I didn’t love him. Not yet at least. Once I said those words, however, I knew there was no going back. Dylan’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.
I nodded, unable to speak. It wasn’t a total lie. I loved his romantic heart. I loved his sweet, gentle nature. But we’d only been together a few weeks. Was it even possible to love someone that soon?
We finished our breakfast and Dylan paid. Again. As we walked back to the Theta house hand in hand, Dylan’s mouth kept curving into a smile. He had a lilt to his step. I’d made him happy, and that at least should have made me happy, but it didn’t.
He wanted to get together and study, but I begged off. “I’m tired, Dylan. I had a long night.”
“Well, I should let you rest.” He seemed distracted, as he gave me a brief hug and turned to leave. I grabbed his sleeve.
“Are you okay?”
He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “How could I not be okay? You love me. The whole world is perfect.”
He kissed me so thoroughly I clung to him, feeling a little dizzy. He grinned when he saw my face and kissed me some more. Dylan was delicious. Even if I didn’t love him now, surely I would very soon. How could I not? And he was right. The whole world did feel pretty perfect, although that changed as soon as I walked into the Theta house and saw Bethany’s face.
She’d parked herself in a chair by the front door and grabbed me as soon as I came in. Her hands shook and she had dark circles under her eyes. I’d never seen her look so pale, even when she’d gotten really sick after a hot tub party on spring break.
“We need to talk.”
She chewed nervously on her lip, glancing around at the other girls in the lobby. “Not here. In your room.”
We marched upstairs, and as soon as I closed the door behind me, she started to weep. She sank down onto my bed and covered her face with her hands. It took a long few minutes of me patting her back and murmuring reassuring words before she could look at me, her face puffy and red.
“Gabriela was raped last night at the Sig house.”
I started to tremble from head to toe. I had to lock my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. I knew without being told who had done this. I remembered the cold look in his blue eyes when he’d found out I wouldn’t be at that particular party.
“Yes. We snuck out of the Theta party early and went there.” She let out an unsteady breath. “I knew it was a bad idea, but Gabriela insisted and I didn’t want her to go alone. You know how she gets. She just wanted to have a good time.”
Fury replaced my initial shock. I got up and starting cleaning, moving around my room in a soothing clockwise pattern, starting at my door. Bethany didn’t say anything. I cleaned this way whenever I got upset, and she was used to it. It helped me to process what she’d just told me.
“I knew this was going to happen. I knew it. The one night I wasn’t there…”
I closed my eyes and took deep measured breaths. I wanted to scream, but held it back.
Bethany came up behind me and put a hand on my arm. “There’s something you have to understand. This wasn’t her fault. I didn’t mean to infer that. She insisted on going to the party, but you can’t blame her for being raped.”
“I get it. She was drunk.”
“No, she wasn’t.”
I frowned at her. “What do you mean?”
“She never even finished her first beer.”
“Zach slipped something into our drinks, Sam. He greeted us at the door, apologized for what happened last time, and offered to get us drinks. He was so…charming, and the line was long. I don’t know why I trusted him.”
I stared at her, realizing the reason for her pallor. Whatever Zach had given her made her so ill that she still bore the effects of it this morning.
“He druggedbothof you? Are you sure?”
“I had a blood test at the clinic this morning. It was the weirdest thing. One minute, we were dancing and drinking, and the next I was flat out on my back on a sofa and had no idea what had happen. I was lucky, though. Max found me and brought me up to his room. He took care of me.”
She nodded. “He protected me. I guess Zach and a few of the other guys came looking for me, but Max locked the door and pretended we weren’t there. It could have been so bad, Sam. I think Zach was really ticked off at you and at me for keeping him away from Gabriela at the last party. This was about…revenge.”
I brushed her hair away from her forehead. She was clammy to the touch. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Something in her eyes told me she wouldn’t be okay for a long time, but she nodded, swallowing hard. “Gabriela is the one we need to worry about. Her parents came and took her to the hospital this morning. She was…pretty messed up.”
Bethany’s phone buzzed and she looked at it. “It’s her. She’s downstairs.”
We ran down the steps and froze when we saw her. On the outside, she didn’t look any different. I guess I’d expected bruises or something I could see that told me what she’d gone through, but I saw nothing. The only difference was her eyes. The brightness had dimmed. They were still the same beautiful dark brown, but without the usual joyful spark.
Bethany and I pulled her into a fierce hug and then led her up to my room. She gingerly curled up on my bed, covering her eyes with one hand.
“I can’t believe this happened. My parents…”
Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. We knelt on the floor next to the bed. I held her hand as Bethany brushed her soft, dark curls away from her face, murmuring soothing words to her. Gabriela wanted to talk, although her words proved difficult for us to hear.
“I woke up in the middle of it, with Zach on top of me. There was nothing I could do.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “Afterwards, when I started crying, he laughed in my face.”
“Oh, Gabriela…” I said, but couldn’t continue. Something inside her had changed last night. A part of her had died.
“I wasn’t sure if he used a condom or not. I had to talk about this in front of my parents. It was so awful. And then they gave me the morning after pill. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“What did the police say?” I asked.
Gabriela stared at me, her eyes hollow and sad. “I’m not pressing charges, Sam. It was my fault.”
I shook my head. “This isnotyour fault.”
“I didn’t mean last night was my fault. But the events that led up to last night…I could have done things very different.”
“You need to make him pay for what he did.”
She laughed, but completely without humor. “You do realize Zach’s father is a lawyer, right? My dad is a janitor. The only reason I go to school here is because he works at the Johnstown campus and I attend for free. My parents can’t afford a lawyer, let alone one who could take on Zach’s dad. My mom and dad are immigrants, Sam. They barely speak English.”
I’d met her parents before. They were adorable and so proud of Gabriela, the only Sanchez to ever go to college. Imagining their faces right now made my stomach clench in knots.
She held up a hand to stop me. “I was an idiot, Sam, and we all know it. You kept me out of trouble as long as you could, but there are a lot of people on campus who saw me make a fool of myself. Many times. And I’m sure they would be more than willing to testify against me. You know it as well as I do.”
I looked at Bethany for support, but she shook her head. “She’s right. As much as I hate to say it, there’s nothing we can do.”
“But he’ll do it again. He’s probably done it many times before.”
Gabriela stared at the ceiling. “My papi cried, Sam. He held me in his arms and wept. I have to think of them right now. If things got ugly, he could lose his job. This isn’t just about me, and I’m not being selfish. I just can’t…”
We held her as she sobbed, the same way her papi had, and we cried with her. We spent the day together, nestled in the safety of my little room. Dylan sent me a text saying he wanted to see me, but I told him that it wasn’t a good time. I needed to talk with him about Zach, but wasn’t sure how he’d react.
There was someone I knew I could trust, and I called him when I snuck out to pick up a pizza for our dinner. Max answered on the first ring.
“Hey, Sam. Have you spoken with Bethany? Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. Thank you for taking care of her.”
There was a long pause. “She was pretty messed up.”
“She was more than messed up. She’d been drugged. And it gets worse.” Some people approached on the sidewalk, so I ducked into the doorway of an office building and spoke softly. “Something really bad happened to Gabriela last night.”
“Zach McGaffrey.” He let out a sigh. “He bragged about bagging a babe at breakfast this morning. I had no idea it was Gabriela.”
“At least he didn’t use her name. That’s one thing we can be grateful for, I guess.”
He cleared his throat. “Was it…you know…consensual?”
“Not at all. Gabriela was in the same shape as Bethany.”
Max let out a string of curse words. It made me feel better just hearing them, knowing he felt the same way I did.
“If she needs anything…” His voice cracked. “You should have seen Bethany. She could barely talk, and getting her up to my room took quite some time. Greg went home, so I was roommate-free this weekend. A good thing, too. Zach kept banging on my door.”
“He was looking for her. I thought he wanted to make fun of her for getting so trashed. He likes to do that, take pictures of drunken girls and stick them on Snapchat and Instagram. I knew she’d be embarrassed if that happened, so I just ignored him. Now that I realize what happened to Gabriela, I’m awfully glad I did.”
“Thank you, Max.”
“I’d do anything for you, Sam. I thought you knew that.”
He was talking about more than helping out my friends. Max still had feelings for me, and that thought made me happier than it should have, but I was seeing Dylan now and we both knew it.
“You’re a good friend, Max.”
I hung up the phone and made myself face some ugly truths. When Bethany told me Max had taken care of her last night, my first thought was not gratitude that he’d protected my friend. It was something else altogether, something unexpected and very nasty.
Jealousy. The thought of Bethany being with Max made me jealous. The thought of anyone being with Max made me jealous. Even though I slept with Dylan, I still felt an odd tug of possessiveness about Max. He was a toy I’d tossed to the side, just like a bored child. And as soon as someone else showed interest, I liked my toy again and wanted it back.
I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help it. And Max felt it, too. It may have been even worse for him since I’d moved on first, with his fraternity brother. We played a dangerous game, but the more involved I got with Dylan, the more I enjoyed Max’s flirty banter, and the less inclined I was to give it up.
I had one more call to make. I skimmed through my contacts until I found the number, knowing it was a mistake, but I couldn’t stop myself.
Zach answered almost immediately. “Talk to me.”
“I’d rather not.”
He paused. “This sounds a lot like Samantha Barnes. What a pleasant surprise. How’d you get my number, Samantha?”
“Greek Week. Last year. We were on the same committee. You’re in big trouble, Zach.”
He laughed. “Not likely. You missed quite the party last night.”
My hands shook. “I’ll make you pay for what you did. I promise you that. You aren’t going to get away with this.”
He had the audacity to laugh. “Stupid, Sam. I already did.”
I hung up on him, unable to listen to the sound of his voice another second. I thought about calling Dylan, but decided against it. I couldn’t tell him about Gabriela, and I didn’t want to talk about anything else at the moment.
Suddenly, I was full of secrets. Gabriela. Dylan. The medicine cabinet. Max. The thought made me shiver. I’d never had secrets before. I never needed them.
As I opened the door to the pizza shop, and felt the blast of warm air from the ovens on my face, I didn’t draw back. I let it pull me in; breathing in the humid air and feeling my tense body begin to relax.
I could only focus on one secret at a time. Gabriela needed me most. I had to face this the way I faced cleaning my room. Just begin at one point and work my way through it in a clockwise motion. The trouble was, I had no direction to follow, but at least I knew where to begin. I grabbed her pizza, and carried it home.
“Would you like to come home with me this weekend?”
Dylan and I sat under a tree on a bench watching students mill about in the autumn sunshine as I leaned against him. The trees had just started to change to brilliant fall hues, and a crisp coolness to the air made me snuggle deeper into my long wool sweater. I sat up and stared at him.
A lock of hair came loose from my bun and trailed across my face. He tucked it behind my ear.
“My parents want to meet you.”
I talked to my mom every single day, and I told her about Dylan, but didn’t feel any incredible urgency for my parents to meet him. I knew exactly what would happen if I did. Mom would love him instantly and talk about his good points over and over again until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and Dad would dislike him on sight and refuse to talk about him. He only started liking Max once I’d broken up with him. He never liked Will at all.
Mom and Dad were nice, ordinary middle-class people. We lived in a house in the suburbs just down the street from where my parents had both grown up. There was nothing terribly interesting about any of us, but I had a feeling Dylan’s family would be a little different. He must have seen the worry in my eyes.
“It’ll be fine. It’s my brother’s birthday, and he wants me to come home. It’s just for one night.”
“I guess I can come.”
I still hadn’t talked with him about Gabriela, and three days had already passed. The longer I waited, the harder it became. I felt guilty leaving her, but couldn’t tell Dylan that without telling him about what had happened. He misread my feelings and frowned.
“You sound thrilled.”
I reached up and cupped his cheek with my hand. “It isn’t that. I’m just a little tired. I got my ‘you know what’ last night.”
The angry frown disappeared. He’d been asking me about my period every single day since we’d slept together.
“You did? That’s great news.”
I curled up against him, my arms wrapped around my sore belly. “Yippee.”
Gabriela walked into my room as I packed on Friday. “Where are you going?” she asked.
She’d gotten a little stronger each day, and even promised to start meeting with a counselor next week. She still had shadows in her eyes, and I wondered if that would ever go away completely.
“Um…Dylan asked me if I’d go home with him this weekend.”
Embarrassed to even talk about my happy, somewhat normal relationship after what she’d been through, I cringed. She didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m going home, too.
She wrung her hands. “I don’t want to be here. I’m scared I might see Zach again, and I’m not sure how I’d react. I can’t run the risk of embarrassing myself, not on top of everything else.”
I pushed my suitcase aside so we could sit on my bed and talk. “He’s the one who should be embarrassed.”
She nodded; her face expressionless. That was another thing that had changed about Gabriela. She used to broadcast every single emotion right on her face. Now she seemed more shuttered, her thoughts and feelings hidden.
“Have you told Dylan about what happened?”
I shook my head. “I planned to ask you if I should. The only person I spoke with was Max.”
“I figured Max already knew, since he was there with Bethany that night. It’s okay if you want to tell Dylan. He’s your boyfriend. I trust him.”
The fact Gabriela trusted Dylan even after what she’d just been through, and I couldn’t trust him even after sleeping with him, said a lot about our personalities. She’d stopped blaming herself, to a certain degree, about what happened, and she hadn’t lost her faith in humanity. I wondered if I had any to begin with.
She got up and kissed my cheek. “Have a good weekend.”
I wanted to tell her to do the same, but it didn’t seem appropriate. This weekend was going to be rough for her and her family.
“Call me if you need anything, okay?”
She gave me the ghost of a smile. “I will.”
Dylan picked me up after my last class of the day, Japanese Anthropology. My professor, Dr. Brown, was the toughest in the whole department. The midterm, only a few weeks away, already terrified me, but the class was fascinating. I told Dylan about it as we sped off to his parents’ house.
“Japan shut itself off from almost all outside influences for more than two hundred years. Can you imagine what that does to a culture? To a language? Japanese is so vague concerning pronouns, sentence subjects, and even verbs. It makes me wonder if that period of seclusion made it that way or not. I asked Dr. Brown if I could use that topic for my final exam paper. He said it sounded intriguing.”
I grinned at Dylan. Meeting with Dr. Brown had cheered me up and put me in a very good mood. I’d needed it after my chat with Gabriela. My heart broke for her, but I couldn’t figure out how to help, other than that one phone call I’d made to Zach when I issued a vague threat. I wanted to do more, but some things just couldn’t be fixed.
Dylan took my hand and kissed it. “I think you’re intriguing, too.”
I leaned back in my seat, my hand still in Dylan’s. As we sped down the highway, I felt happy. Content. I didn’t feel nervous until a few hours later when we pulled up in front a giant stone house. Actually, more like a mansion with a curved drive, huge trees, and a perfectly manicured lawn. My jaw dropped. I realized Dylan came from money, but this was more than I’d expected.
“Please don’t tell me you have a butler named Jeeves.”
He laughed. “No butler. We do have a housekeeper named Nancy, but she only comes twice a week.”
“Only twice a week? However do you manage?”
To my great surprise, Dylan’s parents were nice, friendly, and very down to earth. His brother, the same age as my sister, Sophie, was a younger and slightly shorter version of Dylan. I connected with him right away. Mrs. Hunter served homemade macaroni and cheese and pulled pork sandwiches.
“Jake’s favorite,” she said. “We always have it on his birthday.”
“Everything is delicious, and thank you so much for having me.”
Mrs. Hunter smiled, her gaze resting on her oldest son. Dylan had her coloring, but he’d gotten his height and bone structure from his dad.
“It’s our pleasure,” she said, and to my surprise her eyes filled with tears. She excused herself and went into the kitchen to grab more napkins. When she returned, she was back to normal.
I enjoyed spending time with Dylan’s family. They asked me lots of questions, seemed genuinely interested in my answers, and by the end of the meal, I’d started to suspect little Jake had a bit of a crush on me. Dylan noticed it, too.
“Be careful,” he murmured in my ear. “I think my little brother is half in love with you already.”
I giggled. Jake had been staring at me with big puppy dog eyes throughout the meal.
“He’s adorable. Like his brother.”
I gave Dylan a peck on the cheek. We were curled up on the sofa, full of good food and cake. Jake asked if we could watch a movie together, and seemed thrilled when I told him I loved the movie he’d chosen,The Wrath of Khan.
“He just likes me because I’m a Trekkie. It takes one to know one.”
Dylan gave me a little squeeze. “I think it’s more than that.”
I put my head on his shoulder and noticed his parents watched us closely, both with odd expressions on their faces. It took me a second to pinpoint exactly what emotion I saw there.
His parents lookedhopeful. I thought I’d seek their approval all weekend, but it seemed more like they sought mine.
We watched the movie, ate popcorn, and had a wonderful evening. Their house was huge, their furnishings sumptuous, but it somehow felt like home. Dylan’s parents weren’t snobs, and the more time I spent around them, the more I could imagine myself as part of their lives. Part of their family. Kind of a heady fantasy.
Dylan showed me to my room, made sure I had everything I needed, then pulled me into his arms to kiss me goodnight. I clung to him, and the kiss progressed a little further than I expected. His hands slid under my sweater to cup my breasts and I moaned softly as I leaned against him. I wanted him. Badly.
“Can you stay a little?” My voice, a soft whisper in his ear, made him tremble. When I nibbled on his earlobe, he groaned.
“We shouldn’t…not yet…everyone is still awake.”
In spite of what he said, his hands reached around to grab my bottom and pull me closer. I rubbed against him. He felt so good, and knowing how much he wanted me was a turn on itself.
“I know. I just want to be with you a little longer.”
He leaned down to nuzzle my neck. “I’ll say goodnight to my parents. I’ll be back soon, right after they go to bed.”
“Don’t take too long.”
Hours passed before he finally made it to my room. I had on nothing but a pair of red undies and a cami, and just thinking about him as I lay on the giant, soft bed got me incredibly aroused. I stirred in the bed, tossing back and forth, restless. When Dylan finally opened the door, locking it firmly behind him with a loudclick, I held out my arms to him.
He climbed on top of me, his body a welcome weight. A thick comforter separated us. I pulled his dark head down so I could kiss him over and over again.
“My dad wanted to chat,” he said between kisses. “I told him I was exhausted, but it took him forever to get to bed.”
He yanked down the comforter and pulled up my cami to expose my breasts. “I’ve been thinking about this all week.”
He took my nipple in his mouth and I arched against him, holding him close. “Dylan. I want you so much. I’m dying.”
“Me, too.” He reached under the sheet for my panties, but I stopped him when I heard the antique bed squeak. “What’s wrong?”
I ducked my head into the curve of his neck, embarrassed. “What if your parents hear us?”
He stood up and gave me his hand. “For every problem, there is a solution.”
Dylan’s solution proved extremely satisfactory. After working me to a nearly frenzied state of arousal on the floor of his parents’ guest room, he turned me over so I was in front of him on my hands and knees. I was completely naked and felt a little exposed. I’d never done it this way before. But my shyness disappeared as soon as Dylan put on a condom and entered me. I gasped. The feeling was so intense.
Dylan leaned over, his front pressing against my back. He was inside me, stretching me, filling me, and the angle proved incredible. He brushed my hair away and kissed the side of my neck.
“Sam. I love you so much.”
I couldn’t talk, and I didn’t want to tell him any lies. Instead, I wiggled against him, pushing my bottom against his hardness. He made a sound deep in the back of his throat, and the soft kiss on my neck turned into more of nibble as he reached around with one hand to grab my breast. His hand slid lower, to the place right between my thighs, and I shuddered.
He leaned back and grabbed my hips with his hands, thrusting into me over and over again. This position had never intrigued me. It felt too primal, too impersonal, but now I found I liked it. A lot.
It took everything inside me not to scream when I came. To be honest, the idea of his parents being in the same house didn’t bother me anymore. My need to have Dylan far superseded my need to be a polite guest and not bang the hell out of their son on the floor of the elegant, white washed Hunter guest room. And bang the hell out of him I did. As soon as I came, he came. He fell forward, his breath hot against my back.
“Dear God, Miss Barnes. I think you’ll be the death of me.”
I grinned, my body still humming from the orgasm he’d just given me. “Well, Mr. Hunter, at least you’ll die happy.”
He chuckled and pulled me off the floor, dressing me and tucking me into bed. “Stay,” I begged.
He pulled on his t-shirt and boxers and snuggled up next to me. “Your wish is my command,” he said, spooning me against his broad chest. “But not all night. I have to leave before everyone else wakes up.”
I curled up next to him, very pleased with myself, and fell asleep almost immediately. In the morning, I opened my eyes and stretched, a smile on my face. Alone in the bed, but I still felt the warmth of Dylan’s body, still smelled the scent of his skin. I pulled the pillow he’d slept on to my nose, hugging it. I might not be in love with Dylan Hunter yet, but I got closer and closer every single moment.
We spent the day with his family. The town he lived in was quaint and filled with interesting little shops. His mother and I ducked into just about each and every one, as Dylan, his brother, and father groaned impatiently, but it was fun. I found aStar Warsbook for Jake at a bookstore, and he really liked it. He sat outside on a bench reading it while I browsed with his mother.
“It’s nice having a girl to shop with,” she said as we looked around an antique shop.
“I have a sister,” I said. “My dad is always surrounded by a sea of estrogen, poor guy.”
She gave me a little smile, but something very serious reflected in her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re here, Sam. Dylan hasn’t looked this happy in so long…”
Dylan came up behind her, interrupting whatever she’d been about to say. “C’mon you two. We’re starving.”
He put an arm around both of us and pulled us out of the store. His father gave a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. I thought we were going to have to eat Jakey here.”
Jake looked outraged. “Why me? Why am I always the first one you threaten to eat?”
Mrs. Hunter laughed. “You’re obviously the most delicious.”
We had a nice lunch, and when it came time to leave, Mrs. Hunter pulled me into a hug.
“It’s been so nice to meet you, Sam,” she said, and I heard a hint of tears in her voice. Dylan must have heard it, too. He kissed her cheek.
“Don’t cry, Mom. We’ll be home at Thanksgiving.”
The entire Hunter family looked at me and my cheeks burned. “That would be really fun. I have a lot of family stuff going on, though.”
Mr. Hunter patted my shoulder. “Of course. Just know you’re always welcome here, Sam.”
As we drove away, I looked back and waved. Mr. Hunter had his arm around his wife’s shoulder. Jake stood next to his parents, his eyes locked on our car. He didn’t wave. He stood as still as a statue, his hands shoved deeply into the pocket of his hoodie, and his eyes followed us until the car turned a bend and we were gone.
As we drove home, the sun just setting in the sky, I thought about Jake. The look on his face had seemed so strange. And Mrs. Hunter had been oddly emotional as well.
Dylan, his eyes focused on the road, acted like he hadn’t even noticed. I studied him, his chiseled profile, his strong jaw. Physically, we’d gotten closer. Much closer. But going home with him may not have been the wisest decision. Without realizing it, I’d been watching him through his family’s eyes, perhaps even feeling a sort of carryover of their emotions. They loved Dylan so much. It was hard to imagine I might not love him, too.
I wanted to bang my head on the dashboard. I couldn’t understand when this had become so complicated. I’d gone into it hoping for a fling before I went to Japan, but now I felt so unsure. Part of me wanted to jump into the deep end and just let myself fall for Dylan, but another part held back. That was the part that couldn’t see what was in the water and worried about getting hurt.
Dylan reached for my hand, humming along to a song on the radio. “My parents loved you. Jake, too.”
“They’re great. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
He smiled, his face radiating pure joy. “I knew you’d like them. So do you think Thanksgiving would work out?”
I let go of his hand. “That’s almost two months away.”
He shrugged. “It’ll be here before you know it.”
I chewed on my lip. “My parents will want me to come home. They’d be really upset if I didn’t make it.”
“Well, maybe we can do half and half. I’ll come to your house, and you come to mine.”
I shrugged, but didn’t say anything. We drove for a few minutes in silence, and I watched as his hands clenched the wheel and his jaw tightened.
“You don’t want me to come home with you.”
I sighed. “It’s not that, Dylan. Thanksgiving has always been family time. Just family. They look forward to it all year, especially since I left for college, and this year is even more important since I’ll be going to Japan soon. I’m sure they’d be okay with it, but why worry about it now? September isn’t even over yet.”
“You don’t think we’ll still be together at Thanksgiving?”
He frowned, his eyes locked on the road. The needle on the speedometer moved steadily upward and it began to frighten me. I turned in my seat and touched his arm to calm him down.
“That isn’t it. At all. I’ve just had a lot on my mind lately.”
He wasn’t slowing down. “Like what? Max?”
My cheeks grew hot. No way could he have known about the jealous thoughts I’d had toward Bethany. I hadn’t shared those with anyone. He’d just taken a stab in the dark and accidentally hit something.
“Dylan. You need to slow down. Now. Then we’ll talk.”
His gaze flew to the speedometer and he immediately eased his foot off the accelerator. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”
I held up a hand to stop him. “It’s okay, but you need to stop flying off the handle and assuming everything has to do with you.”
He shot me a glance. “If it isn’t about me, what’s it about?”
I leaned back in my seat. We returned to a safe speed as he got his emotions back under control.
“Something happened last week. At the Sig house.”
“You said you weren’t there.” His voice was tight. Controlled. Angry.
“I wasn’t, but Bethany and Gabriela were.”
“I didn’t see them at the party. Not once.”
His tone was a little more hostile than I appreciated, but at least he wasn’t freaking out anymore. I took a deep breath.
“They were there, Dylan. I wanted to talk with you about it before, but I couldn’t. I had to make sure it was okay first.” I took a shaky breath. This was more difficult than I’d expected. “Zach put something in their drinks.”
Dylan grimaced. “Are you sure?”
“They both had blood tests. Zach gave them the drinks. I’m sure.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe he’d do that.”
“It gets much worse.” I took a deep breath. “He raped Gabriela.”
Dylan got very still. “Has she gone to the police?”
I stared at him. “The normal response would have been to ask if she’s okay. Why would you ask about the police?”
He shot me a look. “I didn’t know there was a standard response to news that your best friend raped someone.”
I felt a little ill. “Yourbest friend?”
“He was. We used to be very close, but things changed last year.” His eyes were locked on the road, his jaw tense.
Last year. When Dylan didn’t come back to school.
“Is Gabriela okay?”
His softly spoken question pulled me from my thoughts. His tone had changed, his dark eyes filled with sadness.
“She was a virgin.”
He slammed his hand against the steering wheel, making me jump. It took him a solid minute before he could speak.
“It’s just not fair.” I nodded, thinking he was talking about what happened to Gabriela, but then he continued. “Just when things were going so well for us, something like this happens. Please don’t let this influence how you feel about me, Sam.”
I stared at him, chilled inside, but didn’t respond. I had no idea what to say.
When we pulled up to the Theta house, we sat inside his dark car. He reached for my hand, and stroked it, kissing the palm.
“Sometimes I say the wrong things, Sam. I’m sorry.”
I turned to look at him, his face only inches from mine. “We all do.”
He pushed my hair behind my ear and cupped my face with his hand. “It seems like it’s when it matters most that I screw up. You matter most. I mean it. But the harder I try…”
I leaned forward and kissed him. “It’s okay. I get it.”
He touched his forehead with mine. “Can I come up to your room?”
I nodded, thinking it easier just to do what he wanted. I wasn’t in the mood for another fight, or more pouting.
Dylan gave me a grateful smile, and ran around the car to open the door for me. He got my bag out of the trunk and locked it.
We walked into the Theta house hand in hand. Most of the girls had already gone out for the night, so it appeared deserted. Saturday nights were usually quiet. It only got loud when everyone came back home.
Dylan looked around my room, browsing through my bookshelf and picking up the photos on my vanity.
“It’s very…pink,” I said apologetically. My mom and I had picked out the colors last year to coordinate with what Gabriela had chosen. She loved pink. I liked it last year, but it seemed a little too girly and childish this year. I hoped Mom would get me new bedding for Christmas. I’d hinted at it several times.
He laughed, coming over to slide his arms around my waist. “It’s perfect. Like you.”
He held me close, his cheek resting on the top of my head. I lifted my arms around his neck, leaning on him and just breathing him in. He smelled like expensive cologne, wool, and soap.
He sat on the bed, and I sat on his lap, facing him. He stared at my face, his finger tracing my nose, the line of my jaw, and my lips. He studied me, like he wanted to memorize every detail.
“Sweet like honey Sam.” His voice was rough, husky. “What are you doing to me?”
I kissed his cheek, and then put my mouth against his ear. “I know what I’dliketo do to you.”
He chuckled. “Why don’t you show me?”
This time, I took the lead. We undressed quickly, and then I climbed on top of him, kissing him as my hair fell around us like a curtain. His hands were on my hips, gripping me, and I rubbed against him, enjoying the sound he made deep in his throat.
“If you really want to be in charge, why don’t you tie me up?”
I stared at him. “With what?”
He nodded at the scarves hanging on the door to my closet. I grabbed a long one and tied his hands above his head, attaching the scarf to the slats in my headboard.
“Oh, baby. This is awesome.” His eyes turned even darker with passion and he arched against me. He’d called me kinky once, and he may have been right. It also appeared he had a little secret. Dylan Hunter liked being tied up.
“You’ve been a very bad boy. You need to be punished.”
He groaned, wriggling against me. “You’re already punishing me. I want you so much.”
I leaned down and kissed him, savoring every moment. I felt his heart pounding against my hand. I sucked on his lower lip, gently nibbling it, before kissing my way over to his ear. I nibbled on that, too, until Dylan’s breathing became ragged.
“Sam. I’ll die if I’m not inside you soon.”
I licked the curve of his ear. “We wouldn’t want that to happen.”
I lowered myself slowly onto him, inch by delicious inch. Soon, we moved together in a perfect rhythm, his hands straining against the scarf. My knees were on the bed, and I moved up and down, losing myself in the feeling of having him inside me. I also liked the feeling of being in control. For once.
We came together, in a sudden and almost violent way. When I wrapped my arms around Dylan, I realized I no longer knew where I ended and he began. I felt like if I let go, even a little, both of us would fall.
Afterward, he looked up at me as I untied the scarf, his voice shaking with emotion. “No matter what happens in the future, no matter where this takes us, I’m happy right now.”
His words sent a chill into my heart. I wanted him to be happy, always, but I couldn’t promise him a future. I couldn’t promise him anything. Instead, I just kissed him goodnight, and held him close as he fell asleep in my arms, both of us naked and spent, his dark head resting on my chest.
Much later, long after the moon had risen in the sky and my sorority sisters stumbled home, giggling and speaking in hushed voices about parties and boys and other nonsensical things, I finally closed my eyes and fell asleep.
Dylan was still sleeping when I woke up on Sunday morning, so I slipped out quietly to take a quick shower. I hummed to myself as I rubbed the soap over my body and washed my hair, the warm water soothing my muscles. Tying Dylan up had been interesting. I’d never done anything like that before, but I enjoyed it. Maybe Dylan had been right about me. Maybe I did have a kinky streak. It might be kind of fun to find out.
Although I still felt distant from Dylan in many ways, sex always sort of brought us back together. Max and I had been friends who had sex. Dylan and I were lovers and yet not really friends. I frowned at the thought then dismissed it, letting my worries flow down the drain with the soap bubbles.
I wrapped my hair in a towel, pulled on my fluffy pink robe and slippers and tiptoed back to my room with my shower caddy in my hand, eager to wake Dylan up. I may have touched myself a little more than necessary in the shower. I kind of wanted to tie him up again.
I opened the door to see Dylan sitting on the bed, a scowl on his face, and my box of birth control pills in his hand. He threw them at me. They bounced off my robe and landed on the floor at my feet.
“Care to explain?”
I put down my shower caddy and picked them up, my face getting hot. “It’s not really any of your business.”
He stood and loomed over me, so tall I had to tilt my head back to look at him. “If I’m sleeping with you, I think itismy business.”
I stepped away from him. My hands shook as I tried to think of how to answer him.
“Condoms aren’t always completely effective. It’s my back up plan.”
He stood behind me radiating anger as he clenched his hands by his sides. “You let me worry you might be pregnant.”
I shook my head and turned around so I could glare at him. “No. I told you there was nothing to worry about. I said it was safe.”
“But you didn’t tell me you were on the pill.”
“No, I didn’t.”
I took a deep breath. “Why didn’t you tell me about all the pills in your medicine cabinet?”
He sank down onto my bed, his anger evaporating, like it had been sucked right out of him. “You saw them.”
“I was looking for a brush. I didn’t mean to snoop. But, yes, I saw them.”
He ran a hand through his dark hair. “I guess now we have to talk about it.”
I shook my head. “No. That’s my point. It’s personal. I only want you to talk about it ifyouwant to talk about it.”
I went to sit by his side on the bed, nearly touching, but just a few inches apart. The chasm between us seemed a mile wide at this point. Dylan wore boxers and nothing else. He sighed.
“I wasn’t in school last year. I never told you why.”
My heart clenched in my chest, waiting for him to tell me he was sick and possibly dying. I tried to remember the names of the medicines on the bottles, but they were all so long and completely unfamiliar. I braved the space between us to reach for his hand, lacing my fingers with his.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
He gave me a long, steady look. “Iwantto tell you, but I’m not sure you want to hear.”
He was right, but I shook my head and lied. “Of course I do.”
He sighed. “It started in high school. I’ve always had issues. Anxiety, OCD, that kind of stuff. But last year it got really bad.”
This wasn’t going at all in the direction I’d expected. I’d been waiting for words like cancer and leukemia. He was talking about mental illness.
I stared at Dylan’s face. He looked sad, but normal. I exhaled slowly, calming myself. Most people would have preferred to hear anything rather than the word “cancer,” but he’d thrown me a curve. I had no idea how to deal with this.
“I became very depressed. Suicidal. I was in a hospital for a long time.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It was horrible. I can’t explain the darkness, the feeling of having no hope at all. It almost destroyed my parents. They didn’t deserve to go through something like that, watching their oldest son want to die.”
I forced myself to move closer to him and rest my head on his shoulder. It took almost superhuman effort to overcome the fear coiling in my heart.
“You didn’t deserve it either.”
His body tensed in surprise as soon as I touched him, and he kissed the top of my head. “I just remember wanting to die so badly. Wanting the pain to end.”
“How long were you there?”
He shrugged. “Months. This is how it works. The doctor gives you one medicine, and waits a few weeks, sometimes up to six weeks, to see if there is any improvement. If that doesn’t work, he tries another, starting from ground zero. Then another. Then a combination of several. It’s not an easy process.”
“It doesn’t sound like it.”
“After they finally found the right drugs, it took a few weeks for them to start to work. I remember waking up one day not in complete agony anymore. My mom came to visit me, and as soon as she looked in my eyes she started bawling.”
“She knew just by looking at you?”
“Yes. My mom is pretty amazing. And strong. Stronger than I’ll ever be.”
I hugged his arm. “You sound pretty strong yourself, Mr. Hunter.”
He stared at my face, searching it to find out if I was really telling the truth. “Thank you.”
“For not judging me. I don’t like to talk about it, but some people know. There are whispers about what happened to me last year, I’m sure of it. I didn’t want to hide it from you, but wasn’t sure how to tell you. I didn’t want this to taint our relationship.”
“Well, you told me and now we’re fine. Do you want to get some breakfast?”
He laughed and pulled me into his arms. “Sweet Sam.”
I smiled at him, trying to hide my true emotions. Worry. Doubt. Sickening, heart-wrenching fear.
Later, I spoke with Bethany about it. I’d gone over to her apartment to check on Gabriela, but since Gabriela hadn’t come back yet, I decided instead it was the right time to ask her about Dylan. As I suspected, she’d heard rumors about Dylan’s absence from other Greeks, and since she was a psych major, I valued her advice. She also had great respect for privacy so I knew I could trust her. We sat on her couch and talked over a bag of chips and a shared soda.
“This changes everything. I’m not sure how to act around him. What if I do the wrong thing and he hurts himself?”
Now as I remembered the look in Jake’s eyes, I knew he’d been silently begging me not to hurt his brother. The idea I could cause serious damage actually made me ill.
Bethany took a chip out of the bag and studied it before popping it in her mouth. “You can’t think like that, Sam, but you should be a little extra up-front and honest with him, I think.”
She held out the bag to me, but I declined, my stomach in knots. “It’s a lot of pressure. How can I ever break up with him now?”
Bethany froze. “You’re thinking about breaking up with him?”
I played with the tie on my yoga pants. “Kind of. Maybe. We’ll have to break up when I go to Japan anyway.”
“Dylan knows that, right?”
I nodded and took a sip of soda. “I think so.”
“Just be clear about it. Don’t avoid telling him the truth just to keep from hurting him. That will be more painful in the long run.”
The door opened, and Gabriela walked in. She had piles of bags and boxes and although she still had dark circles under her eyes, she looked a little better.
We jumped up to help her, and she handed us her packages. “Mama made dinner. Tonight, we feast.”
Mrs. Sanchez had baked a tray of enchiladas and rice that nearly made me swoon. We sat side by side on the couch, watching a movie as we ate.
“Your mom is the best cook ever,” I said.
Gabriela grinned. “She makes the sauce from scratch. And the tortillas.”
“It’s fabulous.” Bethany got up for seconds. “I don’t even care if I don’t fit into my dress for the formal. This is so worth it.”
Gabriela’s smile faltered. “I’d forgotten about the formal.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. The formal was the Theta event of the year. Bethany had already asked Max’s roommate, Greg. They were old friends from high school. I’d planned to ask Dylan, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. That might have been a good thing. Thetas and Sigs often went to formals together, and there was a strong chance someone had already asked Zach McGaffrey.
“We don’t have to go this year. We can do something else instead,” I said, giving Bethany a long look.
She sank onto the couch next to us. “It’s going to be boring. And stupid. I agree with Sam. We should just stay home.”
“No way.” Gabriela shook her head. “I’m not going to let what that jerk did keep me from my own formal. I just don’t know who to ask.”
Bethany chewed on her lip. “How about Max?”
Gabriela’s entire face lit up. “That would be perfect, since you’re going with Greg. Do you think he’d go with me? Is that weird for you, Sam?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t think it would be a good idea. She looked so hopeful.
“Not at all. It’ll be a blast.”
On the way home, I pulled out my cell phone and gave Max a call. The sun hung low in the sky and dry leaves crunched under my feet. October was only a few days away. I looked forward to pumpkins and spiced lattes and dressing up for Halloween. My birthday was October thirteenth. I didn’t believe in unlucky numbers, but I did believe in lucky ones, and thirteen had always been very lucky for me. This year it would fall on a Friday, which made it extra special.
I liked the darkness and superstition surrounding Friday the thirteenth. As an extra bonus, this year there would be a full moon that night, which made me even happier. Bethany always told me I was weirder than I looked. I had to admit she might be right.
Max’s voice boomed over my phone as music played in the background. Pink Floyd, which meant Max was getting high. He turned down the volume a little before he spoke again.
“What’s up, hotness?”
“Hey, Max. I have a favor to ask you.”
I took a deep breath. “Gabriela is going to ask you to the Theta formal. Can you go with her?”
There was a long pause. I heard a low hissing sound and knew he was taking a hit on his bong. “You want me to go with Gabriela?”
“Yes, please. After what happened…she needs someone she can trust.”
“And how do you feel about me dating your friends, Sam?”
“How do you feel about me dating yours?”
He laughed. “Touché. Do you honestly want me to answer that question?”
“No.” I let out a sigh. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. We’ll find someone else to take her.”
“Whoa. Hold on. I didn’t say I wouldn’t go with her. I just wanted to know how you’d feel about it.”
I kicked at a pile of leaves with my foot. “The truth is that I don’t like it, and that pisses me off because I have no right to even feel that way.”
“At least we’re on the same page.” I heard the smile in his voice. “Is this going to be like a double date?”
“A triple date. Bethany is going with Greg.”
Max choked on something and started coughing. It took a few minutes before he could finally talk again. “Does Bethany realize Greg is gay?”
I laughed. “Everyone knows he’s gay, Max.”
“Are you serious? Why am I the last to know? He just came out to me yesterday.”
“What did you say?”
“Well, my first reaction was to say, ‘You saw me naked.’ I’m not sure if that was very politically correct or not.”
“Probably not,” I said with a giggle. The fact Max lived with Greg for over a year and never caught on was sort of hilarious.
“What happened next?”
“Greg said obviously he’d never found me even remotely attractive. It kind of hurt my feelings. It’s cool now. I guess.”
“Are you honestly hurt because your gay roommate didn’t hit on you?”
“Well, when you say it like that…” I heard him laugh softly under his breath. “Not that I want Greg to be into me, but I was a little offended.”
“You’re ridiculous.” I sat down on a bench, happy to have a chance to chat with Max. He always made me laugh.
“It’s one of my many charms. How are things with you, Sam? You sound a little sad.”
“I talked to Dylan,” I said softly, “about why he wasn’t here last year.”
Max sighed. “I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t think it was my place.”
“I know. You made the right decision.”
“Is everything cool, Sam?”
I thought about it before I answered. “Yes. There are still some things we need to iron out, but it’s going pretty well. We seem…compatible.”
“I just pictured the two of you having sex. I need to hang up now.”
I winced. Sometimes when I spoke with Max, I forgot he wasn’t one of my girlfriends.
“Sorry. And thanks again about Gabriela.”
“Anything for you, Sam. I’ve told you that before.”
I held my phone against my cheek, not wanting to hang up. “We have unresolved issues, Max.”
“Yes, we do.”
“But I don’t want to hurt Dylan.”
“Neither do I.”
I nodded, even though Max couldn’t see me. “Good. I’m glad we talked about this.”
Max laughed. “I’m not. I’m still picturing you having sex with Dylan. Yuck. I think I’m emotionally scarred.”
I hung up my phone, and less than twenty minutes later, I got a text from Gabriela.
Max just called to check on me. I asked him to the formal, and he said he would go! Nicest guy EVER.
I sent her a smiling emoticon and shoved my phone into the pocket of my sweater. Max was the nicest guy ever. I just didn’t know why I’d never noticed it before.
My birthday came quickly, just as the weather turned cool, making me shiver in spite of the bright fall sun. Dylan had spent a solid week trying to convince me I should come to the Sig house for a party the night of my birthday, but I refused. Gabriela wasn’t ready for the Sig house yet, and I wanted to spend my birthday with Gabriela. Instead, we planned to go bar hopping, sort of a traditional event. Dylan continued to pout.
“Does this mean we can never go to a party at my frat again?”
He’d taken me out to lunch at the Bistro. I’d just consumed a giant burger with fries, and now worked on a cherry chocolate milkshake. I put down my shake and stared at him.
“We talked about this. I promised to spend my birthday with my friends. If Gabriela can’t go, I won’t go either.”
He scowled, his dark eyebrows drawing together as he played with a packet of sugar. He barely touched his food. I reached for his hand.
“Maybe you could meet up with us later, after you go to the house. Gabriela and Bethany wanted to have some girl time, but I know they wouldn’t mind.”
His scowl lifted a tiny bit. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. My friends like you. You’ve just been monopolizing me lately. I need some time alone with them, too.”
He knew I was right. We’d spent just about every waking moment together, and a lot of our sleeping ones, too. I now kept a hairbrush and other necessities at his apartment. We stayed in my room, too, but Dylan’s place had a little more privacy and felt miles more grown-up than my pink sorority palace.
Dylan’s gloom hadn’t dissipated completely, but he looked somewhat appeased. He reached into his jacket and pulled out a package. My hand automatically went to the silver chain and medallion around my neck. This was another box from the same jeweler.
“What is it?”
“A gift.” He gave me a crooked smile, but it didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Happy Birthday.”
The box sat on the table in front of me. “You shouldn’t have.”
He shrugged. “You don’t even know what it is yet.”
I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “But you’re mad at me right now.”
He leaned forward, pushing the box closer to me. “I’m being jealous. I wanted to spend tonight with you, and although I understand, I’m still…hurt. Not mad. Hurt. It might not make sense, but there it is.”
“You shouldn’t give me gifts if we’re in the middle of a fight.”
“Is this a fight?”
I chewed on my lower lip, feeling teary and very unworthy. “It feels like it.”
He cursed under this breath and got out of his seat to sit next to me in the booth. “I’m sorry, babe. You know how much I love you. I’m being an idiot. I don’t want to make you sad on your birthday.”
I snuggled into his warmth, putting my face into the curve of his neck and breathing him in. He always smelled so good. So right. But maybe not right for me. I scrunched up my face, trying hard not to cry, but a few tears trickled down my cheeks anyway. Dylan pulled back and looked at me in surprise.
“Are you crying?”
I brushed the tears away. “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry. I just feel bad about tonight. It’s not like I don’t want to be with you…”
“I’m the one who needs to apologize. I was being a total jerk. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He ran an irritated hand through his dark hair. “Don’t be sad. Please open your gift.”
I reached for the box, no joy in it at all. Usually, I was thrilled to give and receive gifts. Now, I just felt guilty. The idea of having a “girls’ night” had been mine, not my friends. I wanted to spend time with them, but, even more, I wanted to spend time away from Dylan. I only agreed to meet up with him later to make him happy, not because I really wanted to see him. As much as I liked him, he entrenched himself into my life so deeply it seemed I had no space of my own anymore.
When I saw the earrings inside, I felt even worse. They were gorgeous, a spray of diamonds that looked like shooting stars. I made all the appropriate noises, and he seemed pleased with my reaction, but inside I was numb. I kissed him, trying to apologize for all the things I couldn’t say and couldn’t feel. When he kissed me back, I clung to him, wanting to hold on but knowing, eventually, I would have to let go. He deserved better, and I knew it.
He was quiet as we walked back to the Theta house. Perhaps he sensed things weren’t as they appeared. I hadn’t told him I loved him again since the single time I slipped. I just couldn’t seem to say those three simple words. I suspected he was beginning to catch on.
He brushed my hair back, admiring the diamonds twinkling in my ears. “They suit you,” he said softly. “Shooting stars. Lighting up the night sky with their beauty. Unexpected and magical. But before you know it they’re gone.”
My heart clenched at his words. He seemed to possess the ability to read my mind sometimes, to the point it actually frightened me. I decided just to brush it off. I gave him a playful punch in the arm.
“You’re quite the poet, Mr. Hunter.”
He grinned, but it did nothing to erase the sadness lurking behind his eyes. I lifted onto my tiptoes, whispering in his ear, wanting to make things better, if only for the moment.
“I might be going out with my friends tonight, but I’ll go home with you. Remember that.”
Apparently, the promise of sex was all it took to snap him out of his mood. It was a tool, and I utilized it. He gave me a slow, naughty smile and kissed me until I forgot we’d been arguing and could only think about getting him naked. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who could be swayed by the idea of ending up in bed together, but I still knew I’d been manipulated into meeting up with him later.
“Until tonight then, Miss Barnes.”
I had an appointment with my study abroad advisor, Dr. Tanaka, after lunch. Her office, located on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings on campus, offered beautiful views of the entire town. I saw my favorite potential Theta, Emma, walking out of her office as I got off the elevator. I grinned at her.
She gave me a hug. “Hey, Sam. I just met with Dr. Tanaka. Guess who is going to Ritsumeikan in the fall?”
“Good for you. We’ll have to meet up over the summer so I can fill you in on what it’s like.”
“That would be great.”
I waved goodbye as she got onto the elevator. I had a feeling she was going to ask me to be her Big Sis, and I loved the idea.
I knocked on Dr. Tanaka’s door, room number three. Oddly, there was no room number four. It skipped straight to five. I looked around several times to be sure, but I was right. Room number four didn’t exist.
She opened her door and saw me staring around the hallway. “Hi, Sam. What is it?” she asked as she ushered me into her office.
“There is no room number four. I just realized it.”
She looked up at me with a smile; tiny glasses perched on her nose. A little older than my mom, Dr. Tanaka had been in the States a very long time. Her English was flawless.
“Of course not. The number four is very unlucky in Japan. You know how to say four, right?”
I nodded. “Shi.”
“Yes. That’s right. And how do you saydeath?”
A cold, strange shiver ran over my body. “Shinderu.”
“Shifor four,shifor death. Even though they are two different kanji, it sounds the same. Four means death to us. That’s why many buildings in Japan don’t have a fourth floor. The number four is very bad.”
“Kind of like our number thirteen?”
“Even worse, I think. It’s not like number thirteen is called the ‘death number,’ right?” She giggled and shuffled through the papers on her desk. “Well, it looks like everything is in order here, Samantha. I should have your room assignment for Ritsumeikan Daigaku in a few weeks. Are you getting excited?”
“I can’t wait.”
She studied me over her glasses, and I thought perhaps she heard something in my voice I hadn’t realized was even there. “I’ve made special accommodations for one of your professors to administer the test for the Translation Studies Program while you’re in Japan. Your grades are perfect, as is your performance on the oral test. You know you need to focus on learning more kanji, but try to enjoy your time there. Sometimes, we must go far away to find ourselves.”
I didn’t think I was lost, but nodded anyway. She handed me a thick folder.
“The semester begins right after the New Year holiday. All your flight information is enclosed in your packet. You’ll meet up with students from all over the world. After staying in Tokyo for two days and having an orientation there, you will take the bullet train to Kyoto.”
“TheShinkansen,” I said softly.
“Yes. When I was a girl, it took a very long time to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. With the Shinkansen,it only takes a few short hours. Japan is a small country, and very different from what you’re used to here. I’ll be in touch soon about your room assignment.”
I stood up to leave, but she stopped me. “Don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything. This is your first time abroad, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Other than trips to Florida with my family, I hadn’t travelled at all.
Dr. Tanaka took my hand. She was so tiny she barely came up to my shoulder, and her hand felt very small and delicate in mine. “Buddha said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.’ It’s time for you to take that step, Samantha. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, and one I know you will not squander.”
“Thank you, Dr. Tanaka. For everything.”
She waved away my words and went back to her desk. Because of her, I’d gotten a scholarship covering most of the additional expenses for the semester. She’d also been the driving force in helping me prepare my application for the Translation Studies Program. I turned to her, my hand on the doorknob.
“Is there anything I can bring you from Japan?”
She smiled at me over her glasses. “Do you know what anomiyageis?”
I nodded. “A gift.”
She looked very pleased. “The only thing I desire is your safe return. But if you can bring me a few bean paste sweets; that would be lovely, too. I do missomangu.”
I grinned. “Omangu it is.”
I felt miles better after my meeting with Dr. Tanaka. When my mom called a few minutes later to wish me a happy birthday, I bubbled over with news and excitement about my trip.
“That’s wonderful, sweetie, and we can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”
My parents were coming up to spend the whole day with me. We planned to go shopping and out to dinner. I couldn’t wait. Sophie would come, too, and I missed my little sister desperately.
“What time will you be here?”
“Just after lunch,” she said. “I’ve got your cake in the oven right now.”
I closed my eyes, suddenly and inexplicably homesick. I could almost smell the chocolate cake baking and see my mom in her tidy little kitchen stirring a decadent chocolate frosting.
“I can’t wait.”
I went to Bethany and Gabriela’s apartment so we could hang out and get ready together. They ordered pizza and stuck twenty candles in it. Then they turned off the lights and sang to me. I smiled as I closed my eyes and made my wish, and then I blew out each and every candle.
Gabriela flicked on the light. “What did you wish for?”
I shook my head. “You know I can’t tell you.”