Between Hearts Anthology

Spaghetti is the Best

 

 

Rob, sophomore year of high school

Alex nudges me with his elbow and whistles under his breath. “Check out Miss P today. Lookin’ mighty fine…”

I follow the path of his gaze. 

There she is. The girl of my dreams.

Evie Papageorgiou.

Sure enough, she’s swaying her hips as she walks toward us in a way that makes my dick twitch. This is…highly unusual. For her. Not for me.

“Fuck. If I were single, even I’d hit that.” Alex drools.

Across from us, Mike chokes on his food. “Jesus, Alex. Do you have a death wish? One of these days, you’re gonna push him too far, and he’s just gonna snap and clock your ass.”

The usual lunchtime bickering between my two best friends fades out along with all the other white noise in the cafeteria. I swear, it’s almost as if she’s looking right. At. Me. 

My pulse kicks up as my palms sweat and my pants shrink about ten sizes. With every step closer, her flame steals a little more oxygen from the room until I’m sure I’m going to pass out from lack of air. Since when do my dreams turn into real life? I’m not that lucky.

She looks totally different today. I noticed first thing this morning. All of her tan skin on display has made it hard to concentrate in class ever since. Her clean-cut, classy look has been replaced by a short, flouncy skirt that shows off her killer runner’s legs, these shoes that aren’t heels but still make her look a few inches taller, and a tight shirt that hugs her tits. It’s so low cut she’s even giving everyone a peek of cleavage. Her normally curly, dark hair is straight, and she’s wearing makeup for a change, which makes her blue eyes pop even brighter.

Damn, she’s a walking wet dream.

The way she’s batting her eyelashes, walking like she’s on a private runway built only for me, and making direct eye contact has my dick begging for attention. From her. Only her.

I always come back to her.

Evie Papageorgiou owns me, and she doesn’t even know it.

I appreciate the hot look she’s sporting today, but somehow, it feels off. She’s never acted the way all the other annoying girls at school do. That’s what’s so awesome about her. She doesn’t care if she fits in. She just does her own thing and fucking owns it. I wish I had half the confidence she does. It’s like she’s the center of the universe, and everyone else just revolves around her. The best part? She doesn’t even notice. She never tries to get attention or cares what other people think. Hell, she’s never once noticed me. Pretty sure I’m not even a blip on her radar.

I avert my eyes and swallow as an unwelcome thought creeps into my brain. 

Someone’s obviously on her radar now.

Someone who isn’t me.

“Dude.” Alex nudges me again. “Go ask her if she wants to sit with us.”

“What? Why would I do that?”

Mike rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “She doesn’t dress up very much. The least you could do is notice and make her feel good about it, asshole.”

Oh, I notice. It’s the making-her-feel-good-about-it part I’m fuzzy on.

Alex laughs. “She’s been trying to get your attention all day, chickenshit.”

“Nuh-uh. She didn’t dress up for me,” I mumble. But, I can’t resist sneaking another peek at her. If my eyeballs catch fire from her hotness, I’ll happily go blind.

Yep. She’s still smokin’. And still heading this way.

I glance over my shoulder at the table behind us, trying to figure out which lucky idiot she’s working it so hard for. I don’t need to know who he is to know the rat bastard doesn’t deserve her. If she thinks she needs to transform herself into porn material just to get some guy’s attention, then he’s clearly the wrong guy for her. Her casual look suits me just fine. Hell, on the rare occasions she wears her glasses, she turns me on even more. I never knew I was into the whole naughty-librarian fantasy until the first time I saw those thick, black frames perched on her cute little nose. This girl is the only star in my spank bank and has been since the day I first laid eyes on her. I wouldn’t change a thing. Well, except maybe her smart mouth. 

Talking.

To me.

Wrapped around my dick would be awesome.

Ooh, sucking my dick in between insults. Why does that turn me on so much? God, I love when she puts people in their place in class. Her sharp mind gets me hotter than an oven. There is clearly something wrong with me.

My dirty thoughts derail with the sound of a tray clattering to the floor nearby.

The whole cafeteria quiets until a pin drop could be heard as all eyes turn toward the disaster.

In the walk way just beside our lunch table, pieces of pasta decorate the floor like streamers, and the object of my fantasies is sprawled out on her stomach, her skirt just barely covering her ass.

Time comes to a halt as I hold my breath and wait to see if anyone will rush to her rescue.

Nope.

I watch Mike, waiting on him to do something. He’s one of her oldest friends, after all.

Nope.

He just stares back at me.

The entire sophomore class seems frozen, the very air a sudden blanket over the whole cafeteria. As seconds stretch into eternity, not even any of her friends come to her aid.

What the fuck is wrong with people?

Drawing a deep breath, I get up from my seat on shaky legs. The idea of interacting with Evie outside of our shared classes terrifies me, but I can’t just leave her there for everyone to gawk at. I’d like that ass to stay hidden, especially from the eyes of the douchebags who can’t be bothered to help her. What if she smacked her pretty head on the floor? It’s like no one even cares to see if she’s hurt, let alone to help her clean up.

This is exactly why not a single guy in here deserves her. Hell, her friends aren’t real high on my awesome-people list right now, either.

“Hey.” I crouch beside her, fighting the urge to tug her skirt down. If my fingers make accidental contact with her skin, I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop touching her. “Are you…okay? Did you, um, hit your head?”

She slowly raises her face from the floor to look at me. Her blue eyes swim with tears, and she has a nice red mark on her forehead. She blinks at me a few times and pulls her lips between her teeth, clearly trying not to cry.

“Can I, uh… Can I help you…somehow?” God, I’m such an idiot. 

I have no fucking clue what to do here. If she cries, I’ll really lose my shit. This girl should never be allowed to cry. It’s a crime against all mankind for there to be anything but a smile on her gorgeous face.

She sucks in a deep breath and peels herself away from the floor to sit back on her knees, tucking her skirt underneath her. “No, thanks. I’m… I’ll be okay.”

“You’re wearing your lunch on your nice shirt. Can I maybe…buy you a new one?”

Her deep-blue eyes cut to me as her chest heaves. She violently shakes her head.

Fuck. Did she just bust me checking out her tits? “Uh…I meant lunch. Can I buy you another lunch? Not another shirt. Because…I don’t know what size you wear and, uh, I’d probably get it wrong. But, if you tell me, I could buy you a new shirt, too. If that’s what you need. I mean…if you want. Um…”

Shit, I suck. Why do I suck?

“I’m just going to go clean up in the bathroom, I think.” She sniffles, still trying not to break down in front of all our classmates, who’ve gone on with their own lives. “Thanks though. I’m sorry I interrupted your meal.”

“Oh, no. That’s okay. I don’t really care about lunch. I wasn’t eating anyway. The food here sucks, right? Except the spaghetti though. Spaghetti is the best.”

She arches an eyebrow at me, probably confused at the bullshit spewing out of my mouth. Hell, I’mconfused by the bullshit spewing out of my mouth. Every time I’m anywhere near this girl, it’s like my brain takes a hike. All I can see, smell, hear is her. 

She’s everything. 

She studies me for a few quiet seconds. “Um, you should maybe rethink not eating at lunch since you’re the backup QB this year. I’m sure you need to eat to keep up your strength.”

She hauls herself to her feet, wobbling a little and smoothing her skirt down. I pick her tray up and try to think of something, anything, to say. She’s going to bolt, and God knows when I’ll have another chance to talk to her. Opportunities like this have been few and far between since we met on the first day of school last year.

“Damn wedges,” she mutters. “Who invented these stupid things anyway?”

“What are wedges?”

Her cheeks turn a furious shade of red as she peeks at me. 

“Um, the shoes,” she says. “They’re called wedges. I don’t wear them very often, so I’m not really good at walking in them.” She gestures to her food-covered shirt. “Obviously.”

Don’t look at her tits. Don’t look at her tits.

“Oh, uh. I don’t know much about shoes. I usually just wear sneakers or cleats, so…”

My mouth waters from the idea of helping her clean up by licking the food off her tits. The feel of her tugging the tray out of my hand snaps my gaze back up to hers.

Shit, I was staring at her tits again. The red splatter all over her chest is like a homing beacon for my depraved eyeballs. Did she say something? Where’s she going?

She pivots and walks away without another word or glance in my direction. I must’ve missed the part where she told me she was done with me.

In my peripheral vision, I see everyone watching her quick exit. Shit. If I’m imagining licking the sauce off her, these other assholes might be, too. Fuck, no. They couldn’t be bothered to help her, so they don’t get to think about licking her tits. That’s my job. I earned it.

If grades were issued for fantasizing about this girl, I’d be on the honor roll.

“Hey! Uh, wait up!” I jog to catch up to her, which isn’t hard. She really can’t walk well in those shoes. “Do you have something to change into? You can’t… Um, I mean, you probably don’t want to walk around the rest of the day wearing spaghetti.”

She casts her glance my way, but keeps her chin raised and her forward momentum. “Yeah. I have a change of clothes in my locker for band practice after school.”

“Well, uh…” Shit. Think, Falls. Think.“Our lockers are on the other side of the building, and lunch block is almost over. You won’t make it to our next class in time. Aren’t you scheduled to give your lab findings today in Chem?”

“Yeah…” She stops abruptly and gives me the once-over. Not in a good way. Like she’s suspicious.

Maybe she doesn’t like having a secret stalker. Dammit, of course she doesn’t. I’m a loser. She’s obviously got a crush on someone, and that’s why her appearance is so different today. She must be trying to get his attention. Why would she wantmeto be aware of every move she makes all day long?

She drops her tray onto the belt by the door and abandons waiting for a response from me. Dammit, I’m losing her. I gotta think faster on my feet.

“Um, because, you know… I noticed you and your lab partner didn’t go yesterday, but we did. My lab partner and I, I mean. We presented our findings yesterday, but you didn’t. So, uh… You can’t really be late today because of that.”

She pushes through the double doors of the cafeteria and makes a beeline for the restrooms across the hall. “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t have time to change. I’ll just have to wet a paper towel and wipe it off the best I can.”

“No!” I yelp.

She startles and takes a step away from me, her eyes wide.

“Uh, I just mean…” If you make your shirt any wetter, I won’t be able to walk for the rest of the day, and all the other guys will drool over your perfect tits. Oh God, please don’t do that to me. I won’t survive.

“I’ll, um, see you in chemistry,” she squeaks out. Right before she backs into the girls’ room and slams the door behind her.

Wow, did I epically fuck that up. Why didn’t I just tell her my football locker’s right around the corner, and I could give her a shirt to change into? It’s really too far for her to make it to her locker in the sophomore wing and then to chemistry on time. My feet take me in the direction of her salvation. I can still come back from this if I hurry. I’ll just grab my practice jersey and my extra shorts. They might be a little big on her, but there’s a drawstring, and at least no one can sneak a peek at her tight ass if my shorts go down to her knees.

Holy shit, she’s gonna be wearing my jersey the rest of the day. My name’s gonna be on her back for everyone else to see.

My eyes widen with the realization as I jog into the locker room with more speed. I mean, I’ve wanted to give her my jersey since the first day I met her, but I never thought it could actually happen. Yeah, this isn’t my ideal scenario, but I’ll take what I can get. I’m desperate. And maybe, if I play her knight in shining armor, she’ll give me a chance.

I’d kill for a chance with this girl.

After grabbing my clothes, I slam my locker door closed, and another thought enters my mind. She’ll have to change. She won’t be able to slip my clothes overtop of her dirty ones. Oh my God, she’s about to be naked, with only a wooden door separating us.

The images race through my mind as fast as I run toward her. She’ll peel her soaked shirt up and over her head. Shimmy out of her little skirt and let it fall around her ankles. Fuck, maybe her bra’s all wet, too, and she’ll have to take it off. Her naked tits will be touching my jersey. My jersey will be in direct contact with her nipples. I have never wanted to be an inanimate object so badly in my entire life.

Holy shit. I’m jealous of my jersey.

I skid to a stop outside the restroom. I can’t exactly go in there, so I’ll just have to wait until she appears. Then I can come to her rescue and give her my clothes, and she’ll be so grateful that she’ll invite me inside with her to help her change. She’ll be all coy and turn her back to me, but I’ll be able to see her in the mirrors over the sinks. And I won’t be able to just watch. Hell, no. As soon as she’s down to nothing but lacy little panties, I’ll need to touch. And she won’t stop me because, if it weren’t for me and my quick thinking, she’d have to do a chem presentation in a spaghetti-soaked shirt. She’ll be so thankful for my help, she’ll let me prop her hands on either side of the sink. She’ll watch me with her fucking gorgeous blue eyes and a smirk on those kissable lips as I run my hands down her naked body. And I’ll watch, too. I’ll watch myself touching her in the mirror as she watches me. I’ll watch as I cup those still-damp tits in my hands. They’ll be the perfect handful. Not too small, not too big. Just right. For me.

She’ll be so turned on, she’ll press that sweet ass into my dick and show me she wants me. And hey, because I’m a generous guy, I’ll have to give it to her, right? She won’t need to say a word because I’ll always know exactly what she means without her having to tell me anything. Her eyes will do all the talking. We won’t have time for anything more than a quickie before the bell rings. No problem. I’ll undo my jeans, pull her hot little panties down, and fuck her from behind. That way, we can both watch in the mirror. It’ll be the hottest porn ever. Her pussy will be so hot and tight wrapped around my dick. God, I can feel it now. She’ll be a perfect fit. Every time I bury myself in her, that tight ass will slap against me. Her sweet tits will bounce in time as I pound into her fast and hard. I’m gonna come all over her back and mark her neck with my teeth. Fuck, yes. Because she’ll be wearing my cum, a hickey, and my jersey for the rest of the day, every dude in this building will know she’s off limits. They’ll smell and see me on her skin and read my name on her body. 

She’s mine. All mine. And that dude she was trying to impress in the cafeteria can just go fuck himself.

The first bell rips me out of my daydream. Though my dick’s drooling for what my brain just cooked up, there’s no way it’ll ever go down like that. My sweet Evie deserves way more than a quick bathroom fuck for her first time. 

I’ve heard some pretty weird stories about first times in the locker room, but whatever bizarre hookup places the guys talk about, they all seem to have one thing in common: It’s never as good for the girl as it is for the guy. It seems kind of unfair, if you ask me. It’s like we guys are programmed to pump our dicks in wherever and whatever until we get off. Simple equation. Girls get the short end of the stick with losing their virginity. I’ve heard everything from a bloody mess, to the girl actually crying from the pain, to her just begging the guy to come so it can be over. 

I don’t want it to be like that with me and Evie. I don’t want to hurt her, scare her off from sex forever, or, even worse, drive her to look for a better time with someone else. It’s probably unnatural, the amount of time and Internet research I’ve done into being sure I can make it good for her. The trick is to take it slow. But, I think it’s gotta be more than that. I don’t just want Evie to walk away from our first time satisfied. I want her to keep coming back for more. I know after I have her once, it’ll never be enough. I’ll want that girl forever. 

My daydream of hardcore porn fades away to be replaced with what I really want for her. Soft touches, slow, deep kisses, taking my time until she begs me for it. Fuck, I’m so hard it hurts. I swear I can never get jeans that fit right, and when I get a boner, it’s almost painful. I guess it’s just one of those guy things we all suffer through in silence. It’s weird that whoever makes men’s pants wouldn’t think to give us some breathing room. I’m pretty sure I spend half of my life with a raging hard-on.

A couple of students trickle out of the cafeteria as I turn toward the wall to hide my throbbing dick. I’m gonna need to jerk off before practice, or I won’t be able to concentrate on anything. Hell, knowing I’m about to be feet away from the naked woman of my dreams means I’ll need to jerk off again when I get home.

My best record for twenty-four hours is five times. I bet I can beat that tonight. I’ve never had this much real-life motivation before.

I’ve heard of people dying from heart attacks while having sex. I wonder if it’s possible to kill yourself from coming too much. My poor dick was pretty raw after that last record-setting night. Maybe I should invest in some lube or at least use some lotion or something. Yeah. That seems like a good idea. Or maybe I just shouldn’t whack off so much? Nah. My dick and I are competitive that way. That’s just how I’ve been trained to be. Gotta push through to the next level. At least until I start getting some for real. Which should be in the works any minute now…

My train of thought pulls into the disappointment station when a girl steps out of the restroom and gives me a flirty smile. It’s not my girl.

“Hey, is there anyone in there?”

“Well, I was. But, now I’m not. Were you waiting for me?”

“Uh, no.”

The blond girl gives me the pouty face. I hate it when chicks do that. They can’t possibly think it’s attractive.

“You sure no one else was in there?” I know Evie went in here. I watched her with my own eyes. It took me less than two minutes to grab my clothes and get back to this spot.

“No,” she huffs. “But, I wasn’t really paying attention.”

I’m saved from angry Barbie by my friend, Kerri. 

“Hey, Rob. What’s up?” She gestures to the clothes still clutched in my hand.

“Evie went in there a minute ago after her lunch episode. Can you go in and give her these for me?” 

Kerri gives me a weird look. “Evie who?”

“Evie Papageorgiou. You know, the one whose locker is right by yours?”

There’s no other Evie in this school that I know of.

“Um, sure,” Kerri says, dragging the words out. She grabs the clothes from my hand. “You’d better get to class. Don’t want to be late. I’ll just pop in and give these to her.”

“That’s all right. I’ll wait for her. We’re going to the same class anyway.”

Oh, shit. My books are still in the cafeteria, and I’ll bet hers are, too.

“Okay. I’ll let her know you’re waiting for her.” Kerri disappears into the restroom.

“Here are your books.” Mike comes up beside me and thrusts them into my arm. “She okay?”

“Thanks. I don’t know. She hasn’t come out yet. Hey, uh, she probably left her books behind, too. I’m just gonna run back and get them. Will you wait here for her and make sure she’s all right? I gave her some of my extra practice clothes, but they might be too big.”

Besides, I gotta get away from the naked girl on the other side of that door. Too many witnesses for me to get as horny as that thought makes me. There’s nothing more embarrassing than knowing you have a raging boner everyone can see even through your pants.

Alex laughs as he approaches. “You’re such a chickenshit. If you wanna give a girl your jersey, you just give it to her. Did you trip her so you could do this?”

I roll my eyes. “No. I wouldn’t do anything that might hurt her. I’ll be back in a minute.”

I push off the wall to go in search of Evie’s books to earn myself some more brownie points, but Mike stops me.

“Alyssa already grabbed her books and headed to class.”

Damn, I wasn’t quick enough on the snap for that one. Jeremy probably put his girlfriend up to it. It makes me nervous one of my best friends is dating one of Evie’s best friends. I keep waiting for someone to spill my little secret. My money’s on Jeremy to screw this up for me. He already almost did.

Kerri steps out of the restroom, still…holding my clothes?

“Sorry, Rob.” She shrugs. “She wasn’t in there. I can give these to her the next time we’re at our lockers if you want though.”

Aww, dammit. I run a hand through my hair and sigh. She probably thinks I’m some sort of crazy person after the way I reacted to her wet shirt idea. She must’ve bolted to get away from me as soon as the coast was clear.

“No sweat, bro.” Mike claps a rough hand on my shoulder. “Knowing her, she was embarrassed and probably just bailed to go home for the day.”

“You want me to keep these just in case?” Kerri asks.

Alex grabs them from her before I can even answer. “Nah, he’s good.”

Kerri stalks away, probably pissed at Alex’s dismissal.

“Fuck. This sucks.” I head toward class, not really caring if my friends follow. Misery has a chokehold on my throat, and they don’t really need to see me wallowing. I’m a total loser.

“Don’t be such a drama queen,” Alex laughs from beside me. “You did good today. Just do it again tomorrow.”

“And maybe the next day,” Mike chimes in. “And the next. It’s just like football. You only get out of it what you put into it. You wanna reach the goal? Work harder.”

If it only was that easy. Football, I get. Girls? No fucking clue. Evie Papageorgiou? Might as well be talking rocket science in Mandarin. I got nothin’. 

“You guys don’t get it. I sound like a fucking idiot whenever I open my mouth. She probably never wants to talk to me again after today.”

“Hey, speaking of girlfriends, I gotta bail. Bekah is waiting.” Alex shoots us a slimy wink, then turns down the next hallway. He’s so freaking whipped. 

I’m so freaking jealous.

“If you don’t know what to say, then just keep your mouth shut,” Mike coaches. “Actions speak louder than words anyway.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“This is on you, buddy. I’m not gonna help you. If you want her, then you gotta earn her. Today was a good start.” Mike bumps into me with his shoulder, knocking me off-balance.

I throw him a dirty look as another unwelcome thought forms in my brain that honestly makes me angrier than thinking about Evie trying to impress another guy. “Was that…was that a fucking test back there? Is that why you didn’t help her?”

He shrugs like it’s no big deal he left her to fend for herself. “Just wanted to make sure your rep won’t ever be more important to you than she is.”

“That was a real dickhead thing to do, Mike.”

“Maybe,” he admits. “You might be my friend, but she’s like my sister. She’ll always come first. It’s my job to make sure you’ll treat her the same way.” He stops abruptly and turns me toward him until we’re face-to-face. “Think of me and Alex as the angel and devil on your shoulders. He’ll be your wingman, show you the ropes, teach you what to do, how to act, what to say to win her over. But, me? I’ll be the guy always checking in with her to make sure you’re treating her right. I’ll be the one watching you like a hawk for one wrong move. And, if you everhurt her, I’ll be your worst nightmare.”

The hard expression on his face and the tone of his voice leave no room for argument. He means every word. I both respect and fear him, and my averted gaze and hunched shoulders show it.

His smile proves that’s exactly the reaction he was hoping for. 

“Try again tomorrow. Or don’t. It’s up to you. I’d rather her be with you because I trust you a hell of a lot more than any of the other assholes in this school. If someone else gets to her first, that’s only gonna make my job of watching out for her that much harder.”

“Is this another test? You want to see if I’ll react to the idea of someone getting to her before me? You want me to up my game so that doesn’t happen?”

“Maybe.” With that, he turns on the ball of his foot to head into his next class.

“Your reverse psychology bullshit won’t work on me, Mitchell!” I call after him. “I’m too smart for that shit!”

“You keep telling yourself that, Falls!” he throws back over his shoulder.

It’s not until he disappears into the classroom that I realize everyone in the hallway heard that exchange. My cheeks heat up, and I duck my head to avoid meeting their stares.

The people around me seem to swirl and press in closer than I like. It feels as if every set of eyes in the hallway is trained on me, like they secretly know how badly I crashed and burned with Evie. I wish life was like football. The game I can read, have some amount of control over. Off the gridiron? I’m like a fucking leaf in the wind. Anything can happen. On a good day, I’m smart enough to keep my mouth shut and my nose to the grind. Backup quarterback or not, on a bad day, well…on a bad day, I’m just the shy, dorky loser I’ve always been, tripping over my stupid words and my too-long legs. 

The hair on the back of my neck stands up as I shoulder my way through the halls to class. The feeling of being watched on the field isn’t the same as being stared at off it. It’s creepy. Especially because I know they’re only staring at me for having been an idiot. But, I wish Evie looked at me the way everyone else does. I wish she looked at me at all.

I can’t shake the feeling I missed my only shot today. What if I never get another golden opportunity like that? 

I step into chemistry, and my gaze automatically lands on her seat.

It’s empty.

I sit beside my lab partner, Zoe. She starts chirping before my ass even meets the chair. I fucking hate partnered classes. I’ll bet being Evie’s lab partner would be awesome though. She wouldn’t make me do all the work while she twirls her hair like a bimbo—I’m sure of it. But, again, I’m never that lucky.

Evie walks in the door, and Zoe’s words die before they even register in my brain.

She keeps her chin up even though her cheeks are pink as she wobbles in with her too-high shoes. Her shirt is still stained red from the spaghetti sauce, but it’s even wetter than it was before. There’s white fluff all over the spot like she tried to scrub it with…paper towels…in the restroom.

What the fuck?

Did she not want my stuff because she thinks I’m an asshole? Maybe Kerri was just trying not to hurt my feelings when she told me Evie wasn’t in there. Or maybe Evie found another restroom to hide out in to avoid me. She sure as hell didn’t run home with her tail between her legs like Mike predicted.

My anxiety reaches a boiling point as she takes a seat at the lab table in front of me. It’s been torture for the past month to be so close yet so far from her. Worse is the fact that Jake, her partner, has been trying his damnedest to put the moves on her. 

I’d love nothing more than to pummel him on the field. Or in the weight room. Or, hell, anywhere, really. He doesn’t play a single sport, so my options for randomly fucking him up on the field or the court are limited.

The only thing that’s saving his ass from my fists is the fact she must not be into him. She never seems to take his bait. Sure, she answers his probing questions and isn’t ever mean to him, but she’s not drooling and batting her eyelashes the way my lab partner does with me.

I kind of hate Jake. I’m also extremely grateful for him. While everyone else in class takes notes on oxidation reactions, I’m taking notes on Evie’s favorite things. Each time she supplies Jake with an answer to one of his questions, I store that information faster than new plays from Coach.

“Hey, are you okay?” he asks her.

“Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.” She turns her head just slightly and peeks at me with a small smile.

Oh. My. God.

Evie Papageorgiou just smiled at me.

Maybe she doesn’t think I’m an asshole after all. 

Shit. I never grabbed my clothes back from Alex. I could’ve given them to her now so she could change after class. Why didn’t I think of that?

Jake clears his throat and breaks the spell. “So, I was thinking… Are you busy this weekend?”

“Well, yeah.” Evie shoots him a look that suggests he’s crazy for even asking. “Friday night is the football game and then the bonfire.”

He shrugs, clearly not thinking it’s as big of a deal as she does. “Oh, right. The game. You play the flute in band, right?”

She gives him a “duh” look. Hell, I give him the same one. How could he not know she plays flute in band? She’s only been doing it for the past two years. Even I know that.

“What about Saturday and Sunday? Do you maybe wanna go get some coffee and work on our next lab together?”

Shit, is Jake seriously asking her out?

“Um, maybe?” She throws me another quick look over her shoulder.

Does that mean something? Does she want me to say something? Because I definitely want to say something.

Hands off, dickwad! She’s mine! I saw her first!

“Okay, awesome. How about we meet there on Saturday around noon?”

Evie faces him again. “Only if you can tell me what my favorite latte flavor is.”

“What?”

“What do I like to drink at the coffee shop?”

Jake blinks at her a few times in confusion. “How would I know that? We’ve never been there together.”

“You’ve been asking me all these questions since school started. I already told you. Don’t you remember?”

He turns towards me, a silent cry for help in his eyes.

Not gonna happen, asshole. Your loss is my gain.

“Um…mocha frap?”

She makes a buzzer noise in the back of her throat. “Wrong.”

I have to cough to keep my laughter from spilling out. She’s so damn funny it’s hard to breathe sometimes. It’s chai tea latte. Evie’s favorite drink at the coffee house is chai tea latte. Jesus, does this guy even pay attention to the words that come out of her mouth?

Her favorite color is black. She loves ’80s movies thanks to her mom, but she hates music from the same decade. She doesn’t have a favorite song because she could never choose just one. She thinks chocolate is the best food ever, but she always feels guilty for eating it, and that’s why she runs every day on the wooded trail behind the school after band practice. Her favorite class is AP history, and her least favorite is geometry. She hates all things math. She doesn’t really like parties, but she’ll go if her best friend, Jess, begs her enough. She’d rather sit at home with a good book. Jake never bothered to ask what her favorite book is or who her favorite author is, but I’m dying to know the answers to these unasked questions because maybe that’s something we have in common.

“Listen, Jake, you’re a great lab partner, but I don’t think meeting at the coffee shop is the best place to prep for our next assignment. We could meet up in here after I’m done with band practice, though, if you want.”

“Yeah, I guess. You might spill your drink all over your shirt if we go to the coffee house anyway.”

My hands ball into fists at his callous jab, but Evie just rolls her eyes, seemingly unaffected.

“And thank you in advance for saving me from giving up a few hours of my weekend. Let’s just do this presentation and forget about it, okay?”

“Whatever.” He pouts like a little bitch. The sickeningly sweet voice beside me interrupts my effort to burn a laser beam right through Jake’s head. “We could go to the coffee shop and work on our next experiment, Rob.”

“What?”

“You and me? The coffee shop? This weekend?” Zoe bats her eyelashes at me while she twirls a strand of her black hair around her finger. 

Yeah, that’s not doing shit for me.

My eyes snap to Evie as she jumps up from her seat. 

“Come on, Jake. This presentation won’t give itself.” She moves to the front of the room on her wedgeshoes, with Jake in tow. 

I guess I can rule him out as the guy she’s crushing on. She wouldn’t go through this much effort for him. I can’t be mad at her for dismissing my help when I acted like a total idiot earlier. I was no better than Jake. If I put myself in her shoes, I wouldn’t want anything to do with me, either. I suck just as much, if not more than Jake. I’m so far beneath her I don’t even know why I bother. Oh, wait. I don’t.

“Rob?” Zoe whines.

“Uh, sorry.” I tear my gaze away from Evie as she sets up for her presentation. “I have practice and conditioning all weekend. I’m not really gonna have the time.”

“What about next weekend?” 

Seriously, the eyelash thing needs to stop. She looks like she has a tic.

“I’m… I’ll, uh, check my schedule.”

“Great, so it’s a date!”

What? I never agreed to anything.

Evie clears her throat and then faces our classmates, taking a deep breath before beginning her part of the speech. Her chest heaves with her inhale, and my eyes are drawn to that damn wet spot. Her hard nipples are visible through her soaked shirt. She shivers a little and gets on with it, her voice strong and clear like nothing’s wrong. 

Oh, hell. This girl could shoot me down twice as hard as she just did to Jake and it wouldn’t even matter. I’ve got it so bad there’s no hope for a cure. My dick is right back to DEFCON 1 of throbbing and wanting.

A brush of bare skin against my arm startles me. Zoe. Sitting way too close for my comfort. I’ve gotta rein my boner in before she thinks I’m hard for her. Taking a couple of deep breaths, I refocus on the front of the room and remind myself I only have to make it until after school for some relief. If I get to the locker room early enough, no one else will be in there to catch me playing with myself while I fantasize about playing with Evie.

The next ninety minutes are going to be an unfair test of my resolve.

Roses Are Only Romantic if the Giver Isn’t a Coward

 

Eva, sophomore year

The lights onstage momentarily blind me. It takes a few blinks to make out the faces in the crowd. As the rest of the band takes their seats and organizes music for our annual Christmas concert, I’m busy scanning for a particular face. My mother and my grandparents are near the front and to the right. I don’t linger on them for too long lest the constant flashes from the camera blind me once more. 

Tini is way in the back with her latest fling. I’m not even sure she knows his name, which honestly makes me feel kinda bad for the guy. He spoils her rotten, and she eats it up, but it’s only a matter of time until my younger sister moves on to the next flavor of the month.

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be into a different guy every time you blink. It’s not like there are that many desirable specimens out there. Most guys are like the pubescent spawns of demons, with only a few worthy of friendship. Certainly nothing more. I guess I can’t really judge Tini for her boy addiction. I’m just as bad, if not more discerning. It’s not that I run through them like water. It’s that I’ve been stuck on the same guy for over a year now. If that’s not an addiction, then I don’t know what is. Nobody else even comes close to him. Not in brains, not in manners, not in looks. Not in anything. Never mind he’s never paid me the slightest attention. Forget I don’t really do the whole relationship thing. Or, at least, I never even wanted to try until I met him.

No. Apparently, I just lust after what I can never have. Self-torture really isn’t as fun as masochists would have you believe. Being delusional by thinking I have a snowball’s chance in hell with him isn’t a real picnic, either.

I wish I could shake him from my thoughts, but nothing I do seems to matter. No amount of distraction severs my interest. Neither does his lack of attention. He holds me prisoner with nothing more than his eyes and his wit.

He’s so different from all the other guys. Where most sixteen-year-old sophomores are dumber than a bag of rocks, he’s super freaking smart. He never throws it in anyone’s face the way some of the intellectual kids do, either. Most guys are loud, attention-seeking jerks, but he’s quiet and kind. He’s the total antithesis of an obnoxious jock. I still can’t believe he’s a football player. Every other guy on the team is eager to take what they can get. On the field, in the locker room, in the back seats of their cars. Not this boy. If anything, he seems uncomfortable with all the attention girls pay him. It’s like he doesn’t know what to do with being good-looking and popular. He’s so freaking adorable I can’t even take it.

Is he here tonight? And if he is, who’s he here to see? As much as I want him for my own, there’s no way I have a shot with him. He’s just too…everything. And I’m nothing.

My gaze continues to wander anxiously over the crowd as someone drops a cymbal in the percussion section. I don’t even register the noise, though several people around me jump in surprise. Mike is predictably here to watch his girlfriend, who’s in the flute section with me, but it’s not the sight of my adopted brother that has me deaf, dumb, and drooling. 

My heart beats double time in my chest when I spy the figure sitting next to Mike.

He seems distinctly uncomfortable, his tall frame bunched in the small auditorium seat. His eyes never quite rise to stage level, and he doesn’t seem to fit in with the group of guys he’s sitting with. They’re all talking loudly, laughing, and joking with each other. He’s just sitting there with his chin to his chest, and even from here, the hunch of his shoulders screams embarrassment. It’s almost like they’re making fun of him, but instead of standing up for himself, he’s just taking it.

I guess when you’re as delicious as he is, being taunted doesn’t really register on your radar of epic existence.

He looks like a model ripped straight from the pages of any magazine, wearing a red polo shirt and flat-front khakis, and his hair must’ve taken hours to look that perfectly perfect. I squeeze my flute a little harder, trying to distract myself from the urge to run my fingers through that sandy-brown softness. I mean, it looks so…touchable. It has to feel like velvet, right?

Oh my God. I cut my gaze to the side to see if Alyssa heard me sigh. I think I actually sighed over his beauty. I’ve become the very kind of girl I’ve always judged. Lovesick and stupid.

She must not have noticed, so I return to my silent creeping.

Mike laughs and punches Rob in the shoulder. Suddenly, he lifts his head, and his eyes lock on me. 

I quickly avert my gaze to the safety of my music stand as heat floods my cheeks, and I squirm in my chair. Shit, I hope he didn’t bust me while I was staring at him. That’s just what I need. For the popular Rob Falls to realize that geeky, little Evie Papageorgiou has an insatiable crush on him.

He’s nice enough to me, but then again, he’s always nice to everyone, so that’s no big deal. It was so much easier to crush on him in secret last year, before he turned into the effortlessly gorgeous golden boy of our class. He was always cute, sure, but now, he’s like some kind of shy Adonis. It could be worse though. With his looks, he could’ve turned into Narcissus. Both of those stories end in horrible deaths, so I’d rather keep pretending he’s the timid, skinny boy I first met. 

“Hey.” Alyssa bumps me with her elbow. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I squeak then clear my throat. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Stage fright?”

“Yeah…” I lie. That’s not why I’m freaking out right now, but Alyssa doesn’t need to know that.

It’s believable enough anyway. I do get stage fright every single time. The pounding heart, the nausea, the inescapable fear of screwing up something I’ve practiced so hard for. 

Those feelings fly away once the music starts. Who has time for anxiety when so much beautiful emotion flows through your body with every measure? There’s no feeling in the world like playing with an ensemble. It’s an indescribable rush of being part of something so much bigger than yourself. The harmony of so many hands and minds coming together to create beauty must surely be the closest thing to utopia that exists in the world. There’s also no worse pressure. One wrong note, and you’ll blow the whole thing for everyone.

“Think about something else,” Alyssa whispers. “Oh! I know! Do you think the roses will be waiting for you when we’re done?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” 

“I figured whoever was leaving them would’ve slipped up by now. How does he even get back in the band room and know which seat is yours? I mean, I thought when they showed up after last year’s Christmas concert, it might have been a fluke. But, then there were more after the spring showcase, too? And those ones had your name on them, so we know they were for you.”

She makes a little humming noise in the back of her throat. “I think it’s the same guy who left the teddy bear on your locker last year for your birthday. You have a certified secret admirer.”

“That was last year,” I whisper back. “Besides, if I had a secret admirer, wouldn’t he…I don’t know, have revealed himself by now? I’m sure whoever it was lost interest.” If there was ever anyone at all…

“I guess we’ll find out after the concert,” Alyssa answers. Her tone suggests she’s sure of what we’ll find.

As much as it’s flattering that someone obviously spent the money and took the time to leave me those gifts, I can’t help but wonder to what end game. Why would someone go to all of that trouble, but never tell me who they are? Especially after an entire year? Alyssa seems convinced there’ll be another dozen red roses waiting for me after tonight’s concert, but I’m not so certain.

Honestly, it’s probably a play on my family’s part to boost my self-esteem and make me feel appreciated by someone other than them. Or Jess and Alyssa have been doing it all this time. They’re so insistent I need to get out there and date that perhaps they think “a secret admirer” will provoke my interest in the opposite sex. Maybe that’s because I haven’t bothered to tell them there’s only one guy I’m interested in…

Our band director begins his usual welcome speech at the podium, and my anxiety ratchets up another notch. All thoughts of Rob, mystery bouquets, and secret admirers fly away as I repeat the necessary self-affirmations.

My fingers will fly, swift but sure. My breath will be strong. My timing will be flawless. My phrasing on-point. It will be beautiful. It will be perfect. It will be from the best parts of me.

When the music starts, everything else evaporates. Only my bandmates, the feeling of every emotion possible flowing through my veins, and I exist. With every crescendo, my heart swells and my lungs accommodate the powerful rush of air necessary to convey the volume of a sleigh gliding rapidly across snow-covered hills. I have to fight the smile that begs to spread across my face as the jazzy section of the song picks up, but there’s no way to tamp down my body as it sways to the beat.

When the final song is over, the director motions for us to rise and take our bows. The standing ovation from the audience brings a wide, proud grin to my face. We nailed it. 

The curtain goes down, and everyone on stage rushes into a flurry of activity as the band vacates the space to be replaced by the choir. Over the cacophony of noise, quiet murmurings permeate the thick, burgundy curtains from beyond, where the audience members stretch their legs during intermission. As I hand my flute over to Alyssa before making my way to the risers on the opposite side of the stage, I can only hope the second half of the show will go as well.

The chorus portion of the concert is slightly harder to navigate. Though I love singing as much as playing, I have to face the crowd rather than read my music, and my eyes are inevitably drawn to the one person who can break my concentration. So, I avoid looking in his direction at all costs, instead choosing to focus on a point in the back of the auditorium. 

The only instrument that can never leave me serves me well, every note strong and sure, neither flat nor sharp—as long as my eyes zero in on my sister, who is cuddling in the back row with her boy toy. A strange feeling of jealousy coupled with displeasure nearly overcomes me as I study their physical intimacy with one another. They both look comfortable to be wrapped in each other’s arms, enjoying the music they hear as one rather than two bodies. Though I know their ease with each other will be short-lived, I can’t help but wonder: What must it be like to experience that with another person? To be able to let go and enjoy the moment? 

When the final note fades into oblivion, we take our bow, and the curtains go down once again as everyone breaks to either grab their instruments or head out into the crowd for pictures and hugs of congratulations. Alyssa appears by my side as soon as I step backstage, my flute already with her.

She latches on to my elbow, dragging me along. “Come on! Let’s go see what lover boy left this time!”

My heart picks up speed as I drag my feet. Do I want there to be a bouquet? Part of me hopes for it, but the bigger part of me feels so pathetic over the whole thing. 

Sure enough, as soon as we step inside the band room, Alyssa squeals in my ear. “There’s another one!”

Jess is already at my seat, leaning over and inspecting the bouquet without touching anything. She whips her gaze toward us when she hears Alyssa’s reaction. A slow, calculating smile blooms across her face as we approach.

“There’s another one,” she announces. 

Obviously. That’s Alyssa and Jess for you. The dynamic duo of all things obvious.

“Does it say who it’s from this time?” Alyssa questions. She’s studying the bouquet like it holds all the answers to the universe.

“I don’t know. I didn’t want to touch it.”

Two sets of eyes train on me. I can feel them watching, waiting to see what I’ll do.

I don’t know what to do. “You know, if you guys are doing this just to make me feel better about myself, your plan is totally backfiring. Fess up already.”

Alyssa crosses her arms over her chest, a hurt expression on her face. “We wouldn’t do that to you, Evie. We’re your friends. Why would we play with your emotions like that? Now, pick them up and see who they’re from.”

My lips twist to the side both out of guilt for my accusation and fear of what I’ll find. What if they’re not from him? What if they are? I’m completely out of my element here. I don’t know what to do with a boy now any more than I did in middle school. Then again, no one’s ever shown any more interest in me than the occasional horny guy looking to score. If I show even the slightest hesitation, they bolt like frightened animals. I guess most guys don’t know what to do with a girl who actually thinks for herself.

Gingerly, I pick the roses up and look for any sort of clues as to their appearance. It’s a beautiful bouquet—a dozen red roses with golden-glitter tips, baby’s-breath, pine, and holly accents. Several swirling red and gold glitter rods complete the holiday-themed arrangement. The entire thing is wrapped in poinsettia-printed tissue paper and tied with a red, silky bow. 

It must have cost a small fortune.

A little, white envelope is tucked inside the ribbon. With shaking fingers, I dislodge the small square from its hiding place. 

Alyssa plucks the bouquet from my arm so I can inspect this clue a little more closely. Once again, there’s no mistaking this gift is for me because my name is written on the front of the envelope. I break the seal, then pull out one of those tiny cards sold in floral shops. It, too, is Christmas-themed, a poinsettia print all around the border. Jess and Alyssa read over my shoulders.

 

Another great performance!

Congrats! You were awesome!

 

That’s it. No name. No nothing. The message is so vague and…bizarre. It’s almost impersonal. If it weren’t for the fact the envelope is clearly addressed to me, this card could have been for anyone. It seems like the writer had no clue what to actually say but, for whatever reason, felt the need to say something.

“It’s totally from a guy,” Jess advises. “No girl would write something like that.”

“It’s definitely a girl’s handwriting though.” I study the script. “It’s too flowy and easy to read. Boys’ handwriting is practically indecipherable. Maybe the lady at the flower shop wrote the message for him.”

“Agreed,” Alyssa responds. “And whoever sent the message probably isn’t in band or choir, either. It’s too generic for someone who knows music.”

The three of us scan the room for any guys who might be acting suspicious. We obviously aren’t convinced of our own logic, but no one here fits our expectations.

“He’s totally not in band,” Jess concludes. “Let’s get outta here. I’ve got a hot date.”

We collect our things, then head out to meet our parents and the rest of our friends. A massive crowd mills around in the lobby. Students are posing for pictures and receiving flowers and hugs from friends and family, and everyone is just generally having a good time. The air is brimming with holiday excitement.

Jess goes off in search of her boyfriend as Alyssa and I scan the room for our families. I still haven’t spotted mine when Alyssa once again grabs my elbow and drags me off…somewhere.

“Where are you taking me?”

She throws a wink at me. “To do some investigative work.”

I pull back, effectively halting her forward momentum, until she releases her hold and rounds on me, a confused expression marring her features. 

“Lys, I don’t want to know who they’re from.”

“Why not?”

Because I’m still not convinced it isn’t you. Or Jess. Or my mom and my grandparents. Because I’m entirely sure they’re not from the only person I want them to be from.

“If he wanted me to know, he’d tell me. Roses are only romantic if the giver isn’t a coward.” There. Maybe that’ll convince her to stop with the ruse.

“Maybe he isn’t a coward. Maybe he’s just shy and not sure how you’ll respond. You’re not exactly friendly with most guys.”

Well, that’s insulting. “That’s not true! I’m nice to everyone. Just because I don’t flirt with every guy at school doesn’t mean I’m a jerk!”

Alyssa takes a step closer to me and lowers her voice for only my ears. “Evie, sweetie, you know I love you, right? And I only want what’s best for you, okay?” She casts a furtive glance at the people crowding around us and leans in even closer. “There’s talk at school that you’re gay and in the closet. People are starting to get the wrong impression.”

When I open my mouth, she defensively lifts her hands. 

“I know, I know. It’s stupid and none of their business. But I hate that people are thinking the wrong thing about you. Maybe you could, I dunno, just show some interest in the opposite sex, at least?”

I snap my mouth shut. Is this really my life right now? I’m not sure what stings worse. That there’s gossip going around about my sexuality or that Alyssa thinks I need to do something to prove the rumors wrong. Shouldn’t that be my choice? I don’t want to pretend to be a typical boy-crazy girl just to save my reputation. If I’m not into a guy, I’m not into him. Simple as that.

A big arm around my shoulders distracts me from my thoughts. 

“Good job tonight, baby girl. Got another bouquet, I see.”

I glance up to find Mike smiling down at me. He feels like safety and comfort, so my shoulders relax a fraction in his embrace. 

“Thanks. Yeah.”

“Who are they from?” Jeremy steps up beside Alyssa, an excited gleam in his brown eyes. He slides an arm around his girlfriend’s waist and hands her a bouquet of lilies. 

He’s so sweet. Lilies are Alyssa’s favorite flower.

“I, um, I don’t know.” My heart skips a beat, and whatever I was going to say next dies on my tongue as Rob’s tall figure comes into view beside Mike. 

Of course, they’re together. They’re friends; I know this. They were sitting together at the concert. Seeing him, here, standing around with all of us, just seems so unexpected somehow.

His hands are shoved deep inside his pockets, and his gaze remains fixed on the ground, reminiscent of the first time I met him. He’s so beautiful and shy it physically pains me to breathe the same air as him. I’m not worthy.

“Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving after pounding on the drums for so long. Let’s go get something to eat.” Jeremy squeezes Alyssa’s shoulders and gives her a quick peck on the cheek. 

“That’s a great idea.” Mike nods. “Lemme go grab Chelsie, and we’ll meet at the diner?”

“We’re going to the diner?” 

All eyes turn toward the newcomer, Alex Fossoway, as he invades our circle. His girlfriend, Bekah, is beside him. He hangs out with Rob and Mike, but I’ve never spoken two words to him before because we don’t really have any of the same classes. I guess he’s only here tonight because Bekah is in choir.

“Yep. That’s the plan,” Mike answers. “Anyone else we should invite?”

Alex seems to think it over while he and Jeremy appear to exchange some sort of silent conversation. “I don’t think so. This seems to be everyone.”

This whole night is so weird. First, another mystery bouquet. Now, this?

Jeremy’s a drummer. Alex, Mike, and Rob are all football players. Yet they seem as if they’re age-old friends. It’s a strange mix, but somehow, this little group seems to just…fit together. 

Everyone except me, that is.

“Well, I should go and find my family. Have a great night!” 

No sooner do I think I’ve expertly planned my escape than Mike tightens his arm around me. 

“Why don’t you come with us?”

I have a long list of very valid reasons why I shouldn’t go with them, including embarrassing myself in front of my crush, hyperventilating at being in the same proximity as he is, and, last but not least, the fact that he is zero percent interested in me and would probably laugh his ass off if he knew about my feelings for him. 

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m sure Mama, Papou, and YiaYia are waiting for me. I’m just gonna go home.”

Alex attempts to choke back a laugh but fails miserably. “What the hell did you just say?”

“I’m gonna go home?”

“No, the other part. Your mom and who are waiting for you?” His arrogant smile slides off his face when Rob punches his arm.

My cheeks heat up. Oh, here we go. I’ve heard all the Greek jokes I can possibly take in my lifetime. I definitely don’t need another round. 

“Um, Papou and YiaYia means grandpa and grandma in Greek. And…I’m sure they’re all waiting for me. So, I better go find them before they leave without me.”

“If, um, you’re worried about getting home, I can give you a ride.”

My heart stops beating. Pretty sure Rob Falls just killed me with that softly spoken offer. I must be dreaming. This isn’t real. 

“Uhh…” I genuinely have no words for this moment.

“Come on, Evie. We’ll go find your family and tell them you’re coming with me. I’ll grab Chelsie. Then we’ll meet everyone at the diner. Sound good?” Mike’s smile is so full of hope I don’t have the heart to disappoint him. He rarely asks me for anything. 

Even though I hate feeling like a third wheel with him and his girlfriend, it at least lets me off the hook for being alone in a car with Rob. I seriously would not know what to do with myself in such an intimate setting with him. I might do something really crazy and just maul him. He’s so darn beautiful.

“All right. It’s settled, then. See you all there.” Jeremy steers Alyssa away, wearing a disturbing smile.

Alex nods toward me, bearing the same shit-eating grin Jeremy had. “Nice flowers, Eva.”

Then he and his girlfriend disappear, too.

Alex Fossoway knows my name?

I blink at the bouquet still clutched in my arm. I’d honestly forgotten all about it in the presence of the guy who clearly didn’t give it to me.

 

***

 

I’ve never found myself sandwiched between two football players before. It’s both an exciting and disconcerting experience. I’ve also never been to this particular restaurant before. It’s awfully crowded for a Thursday night. There are eight in our group, but we’re shoved into a booth for six. 

The diner is quaint and kitschy. It’s not like the retro diners with lots of chrome and ’50s styling I’ve seen on television. Instead, it’s a mix of pretty much everything having to do with the area, but the main focus seems to be on sports. The posters that cover the walls range from the high school football team to NFL teams. It’s old but clean. The booths are red leather, cracked in places, but still comfortable. The Formica table tops are lined with ads from all sorts of local businesses, from the chocolate shop to the grocery store. It’s cute and homey. Fantastic smells of fried food waft into the dining room from the kitchen, and the little older lady who showed us to our table was absolutely charming. She chatted away with the guys like she already knows them well.

I could totally see myself working here when I turn sixteen in the spring. I love sports, and it seems the owners do, too.

“Are you, um, having a nice time?”

The question slams into me from my left. Rob sounds slightly breathless and like every quietly uttered word causes him great pain.

He’s shoved against the wall, and I’ve been doing my best to ignore his close proximity. Trying to focus on the conversation going on around me has been difficult because every time he breathes, I can. Feel. It.

My body is practically plastered against Mike on my right, but heat radiates from Rob and seeps into my skin, chasing away the winter chill. It’s taking every ounce of my willpower not to cave and relax against his side. How creepy would it be for me to sniff him? The faint scent of his cologne fights for dominance over the other smells of the diner, and I really want to confirm it’s Rob who’s making my mouth water. 

“Yeah. It’s really…neat in here.”

Oh my God. Did I just say “neat?” I sound like a child from a sitcom.

He doesn’t seem to notice my idiocy, just gives me a curious look. “You’ve never been here before?”

This is probably the first time he’s looked at me since we arrived, but the weight of his beautiful eyes coupled with his genuinely curious tone forces my gaze to my lap. I feel so inadequate all of a sudden.

“Um, no. I don’t really go out all that much.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” He seems to be talking to himself more than me now. “I remember hearing you tell Jake that.” His expression turns sheepish, and his cheeks redden. “I’m sorry. I swear I’m not trying to, um, overhear your conversations. It’s just you two sit right in front of me, and I can’t help but hear all the stuff he asks you, and he really asks you a lot, so…uh. He thinks of really interesting stuff to talk about, so I guess I pay attention…”

He trails off as his mouth turns down in an embarrassed grimace, and he averts his gaze to the table.

His admission about eavesdropping on my conversations with my chemistry lab partner sends my pulse racing. Just as quickly as my excitement builds, doubt creeps in. Puzzle pieces about his behavior over the past year and a half begin to fall into place. I mean, sure, he sits right behind me in chem, so it’s possible he just overheard us talking, but that would mean he’s ignoring his own lab partner in class. And, by his own admission, it seems like he’s more focused on Jake’s constant interrogations than my answers. Suddenly, what Alyssa told me of people making assumptions about my sexuality slaps me in the face. 

Oh God, how could I have been so stupid? 

That’swhy Rob always seems so uncomfortable with the girls who are constantly trying to get his attention at school. That’swhy I thought the very first time I met him that he seemed so different than most of the boys I know. That’swhy he didn’t feel threatening or scary to me. That’swhy I can never seem to catch his eye or get him to talk to me.

Swallowing my own disappointment, I can’t help but rush to set the record straight. “I mean, yeah, he does think of really interesting stuff to ask, but maybe you could take over answering some of his questions? I mean, he never even remembers the answers I give him anyway. And that’s okay, honestly, because he’s not really my type, and I feel like I’m just patronizing him by responding.”

Rob lifts his gaze to me, and a small smile deepens the dimple in his right cheek. 

God, he’s so beautiful, and life is so unfair.

All I’ve ever wanted is to mean somethingto him, and if all I can be is a matchmaker, then I’ll take it. So, I rush on. “I promise I’m not interested in him that way.”

His smile grows, and his eyes seem to change color in an instant. Is it strange my heart both breaks and sings at the same time?

“I wasn’t trying to step on your toes or anything. I don’t know Jake very well, but I’m sure he and I aren’t compatible, so you should totally go for it.”

Across the table, Alex chokes and sputters on his drink. “Jesus, Rob’s not gay!”

He and Jeremy howl so loud, several other customers stare at our table. I cut my gaze to the side and see Rob completely red-faced and staring at the table, mortified.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I fire back. “I thought he was your friend? You act like he’s an ax murder or something! He’s allowed to be gay, you assholes.”

Alex is laughing so hard, tears form in his eyes. “Nope. No assholes for our boy. No dicks, either. He’s all about the pussy.”

“A very particular pussy, in fact,” Jeremy chimes in between gasps.

Bekah smacks Alex in the chest, but Alyssa just rolls her eyes at the crass language her boyfriend spewed out like it’s no big deal.

The really disturbing part isn’t their words though. No, words only hold the power we give them. And these guys are talking like vaginas are the only thing women are worth. It’s beyond disgusting. Their statements pretty much equate homosexual men with being less than, on par with their view of women. It’s hard enough being a modern woman, trying to make your way in the world, while overcoming these beliefs. I can’t even fathom the amount of mental fortitude and strength it takes to come out as a gay man, exposing yourself to not only homophobia, but also an essential demotion of your person by being equated to nothing more than a hole for someone to stick it into. Maybe if our society was a little less focused on sex and hedonistic instant gratification, we could have more open discussions about celebrating our differences. It’s no wonder Rob looks like he’s going to puke beside me.

Oh my God, why am I defending the guy who I’m heartbroken over for not being straight? It’s none of my damn business. What is even going on in my head tonight? Gay or not, Rob Falls does something to my brain. Like completely shorts it out.

“He’s not gay, Evie,” Mike mutters beside me. With far more tact than Alex or Jeremy had.

“You’re really not?” I ask Rob as embarrassment heats my face.

He refuses to look at me, just shakes his head and continues to bore a hole in the table with his eyes.

I finally relax and allow our bodies to touch, nudging him a bit with my shoulder. “Hey, don’t listen to them. If you are, it’s totally fine. I would never think less of you. Love is love.”

“I’m not gay,” he mumbles.

Oh, shit. Maybe he needs to keep it quiet because of sports. I can imagine how awkward it might be in the locker room if the guys you spend half of your time naked with think you might be checking them out.

“I’m so sorry,” I whisper, trying to salvage even a shred of his dignity. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“It’s okay,” he whispers back. “Honest mistake.”

“Please,” Alex laughs. “Please tell me why you think he’s gay.”

Jeremy is still losing his shit at the other end of the table. “Oh, this is priceless.”

“I, um…” I have no response. 

I’m so mortified for Rob. The way his friends are treating this whole situation is beyond disrespectful. 

Wait a minute…

“You know what?” I lift my chin and stare down the idiots across the table. “You two are just jealous because you’re not half as smart, half as good-looking, or half as talented as Rob. Laugh it up, boneheads. He’s awesome and you’re both…mediocre, at best.”

Instead of shutting them up, they start coughing words under their breath.

Are they…are they saying, “Chickenshit?”

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

A French fry flies across the table and makes direct contact with Jeremy’s forehead.

All eyes turn to the quarterback in the booth. 

“I hate you both.”

And they just laugh harder.

Even Mike joins in. “You brought this on yourself, man.”

Beside me, Rob sighs and shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah. You’re all so damn funny.”

What is even going on here tonight? My head spins as I try to make sense of this strange group dynamic. I’m admittedly the interloper, but they’re all acting so weird. Are they always like this?

“All right. Change of subject,” Alyssa announces. “So, Evie’s been getting these bouquets from a mystery man after every concert since last Christmas…”

Oh God, no.

“And we can’t figure out who’s leaving them. They’re always on her chair in the band room after the concert, sometimes with a card, sometimes not, but never signed by who they’re from. I think it’s the same guy who left a teddy bear on her locker for her birthday last year. You guys got any ideas? ’Cause Jess and I are coming up empty.”

Every single guy at the table erupts in raucous laughter. Except Rob. He’s probably still pissed about the whole gay thing.

I hide my face in my hands. I can’t look at any of them. They must think I’m so pathetic. My stupid-ass friends or someone in my family is playing a trick on me, and the guys all see it for what it is. I have to be the least desirable girl in our class. At least the focus has been shifted away from Rob. I guess karma is biting me on the ass for having stuck my foot in my mouth earlier. Mortification level ten unlocked.

“Stop,” Rob says firmly. “You’re embarrassing her.”

More coughs of “Chickenshit” ensue. Is that supposed to be code for something?

“I’m not kidding. That’s enough.” 

Everyone quiets because Rob’s voice takes on a hard edge.

Even I peek from behind my hands. He’s always so soft-spoken and quiet. I’ve never heard him sound so commanding before. And it works. They all shut up immediately.

How unfair is it that this rarely seen side of him completely turns me on?

Thank God the waitress chooses this moment to finally appear to take our food orders.

The rest of the meal goes by with relatively little incident. A few times “Chickenshit” is thrown around, but Rob just ignores it. He doesn’t say another word to me the entire meal. I guess that’s fair. I embarrassed the crap out of him, and being the gentleman he is, he still shut down the horrifying topic of the mystery roses prank being pulled on me.

He’s so stupidly perfect.

I’m stuffed and wondering who’s going to take me home when the waitress reappears. 

“How do you want me to split the checks?”

Naturally, all the guys offer to pay for their girlfriends. I’m just about to speak up when Rob beats me to the punch. 

“I’ve got hers.”

“Oh, that’s okay. You don’t have to do that.”

“You didn’t even want to come tonight. It’s the least I can do.”

My face heats and words escape me, so I just nod.

“Do you want me to drive you home?” he asks.

Blood rushes in my ears as my heart thuds in my chest and nausea overwhelms my stomach. It has nothing to do with all the greasy food I’ve just consumed. 

“Oh, no. That’s okay. I can just catch a ride with Mike.”

He nods but says nothing else. His expression gives nothing away.

Why would he even want to drive me home after the way I embarrassed him in front of all his friends? I guess he feels obliged since he first offered. He’s such a nice guy. Ugh, I hate myself and my stupid mouth and my stupid brain.

“I’m really sorry about what I assumed before…about…you know.”

He sighs and fiddles with his empty plate, piling his used silverware and napkin on top. It’s as if he’s trying to make as little work as possible for the server. 

He’s so cute…and thoughtful.

“That’s okay,” he mumbles. “I guess I did that to myself.”

I lower my voice and lean closer to him to make sure no one else at the table will overhear our conversation. “It really is okay if you are. I understand why you might not want anyone to know. I’ll be your friend either way. I won’t judge you.”

When he lifts his gaze to me, we’re so close his warm breath fans across my face. Even seated, he’s so much taller than I am that I have to crane my neck to maintain eye contact. He makes me feel supremely small, a realization which causes me to back away and swallow a ball of fear. 

He studies me for a beat before responding in an equally soft whisper. “Thank you. But I’m really not gay. I’m sorry if that disappoints you.”

It’s all I can do not to laugh and attract attention. 

My heart soars, and my words come out all breathy. “Why would that disappoint me?”

He shrugs, the movement rippling into my own body. “I dunno. You just…seemed so sure, I guess.”

His expression is so sad, his eyes so blue. My mouth waters at his scent. I have to take a deep breath to repress the urge to kiss him right here in front of everyone. 

“Wanna know a secret?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not sure of anything. I’m kind of just fumbling my way around life like anyone else.”

That little dimple in his cheek makes a reappearance with his tentative smile. “Really?”

“Yeah, really.”

“What if I told you I’m doing the same thing? Would you keep that secret for me?”

I would do anything he asked of me. “Yeah.”

“You wanna know another secret?” he asks.

I’m pretty much drooling at this point, so…yeah.

Mike bumps into me. “Hey, you ready to go?”

With just those five little words from my brother, my mind rights itself, and the spell of Rob’s eyes and his words breaks. I might have done something so foolish if not for the interruption. 

“Yeah. I’m ready whenever you are.”

We collect our things and scoot out of the booth. Everyone else does the same until we’re all standing in the parking lot, exchanging goodbyes.

I cast one last look back at the diner. Maybe I should try to be more social and experience new things. Tonight was really fun, if not odd at times. Definitely different than sitting in my room, petting my cat, and reading a good book.

“Goodnight, Evie,” Rob offers as I turn to go with Mike and Chelsie.

My name sounds just as beautiful rolling off his tongue now as it did the first time I heard it. It’s like he breathes new meaning into it. He hasn’t said my name once since that day we first met.

I’m probably reading too much into it. “Goodnight, Rob.”

I only glance over my shoulder once as we make our way to Mike’s car.

He doesn’t stay to watch us leave. Instead, he makes swift strides toward his car like he would rather be anywhere but in this parking lot right now. After the horrible way I embarrassed him tonight, I don’t blame him at all.

This is exactly why I turned a ride from him down and tried to protest coming out with everyone. Whenever he’s around, I never know how to act or what to say. The very first time I stared into his gorgeous eyes, my tongue pretty much tripped over any words that stumbled out of my mouth. I’m not like all the other cheerleaders and popular girls who always try to get his attention with smooth lines, batting eyelashes, and skimpy clothes. I’ve even tried mimicking their behavior, but he treated me the same as he treats the rest of them: kindly but with no special response. 

Just as I open the door to climb into the back seat of Mike’s car, the unmistakable sensation of being watched pings the back of my neck with goose bumps. My eyes lock on Rob’s tall form as he stands beside his own car. He offers a small wave and a shy smile before he climbs in and starts the engine.

Maybe Alyssa was onto something when she said the mystery guy might not be a coward but just shy. Rob’s definitely introverted; it’s one of the things I like best about him. It might be that I just haven’t given him enough motivation to treat me differently than anyone else. I’ll have to think of something more than what all the popular girls do. Clearly, acting like them doesn’t hold any sway with him. But what else can I do to make myself seem more attractive to him? I don’t have the first clue about what guys like. 

As Chelsea and Mike chat away in the front seat, my mind is focused on one goal and one goal alone: to make myself impossible to resist to one irresistible Rob Falls.

First Time for Everything

 

 

Rob, junior year

My shiny blue muscle car purrs as I pull into my usual parking spot at school. All the other students loiter around their vehicles, stalling as long as possible before starting another lousy day filled with teachers, assignments, and the usual high school bullshit. Their words come out in clouds of white which remind me of comic strip speech bubbles. They huddle together for warmth against the frosty winter air rather than take shelter inside the building. While they stand in groups and talk excitedly about their plans for the weekend, I hide out in my car until the last possible minute. I’m not in the mood to fake it today with my teammates. Hell, I’m not even in the mood to hang out with my friends. Their constant looks of pity and words of encouragement are getting on my last fucking nerve.

If I have to hear one more time about how I’ll get over it, and it’s her loss, I will lose my shit.

The loss isn’t hers alone. It’s definitely mine, too. And it hurts more than if I’d lost the biggest game of my life.

My head falls back onto the leather seat with a dull thud that echoes around the interior of the Mustang. I squeeze my eyes shut and take a few deep breaths of the faint scent of Pops’ aftershave, which fades away a little more every day. If you’d have told me a couple of months ago two of the very few things I truly love and admire in this world would be ripped away from me, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

Yet here I sit, my grandfather, mentor, and overall hero six feet under after a suicide no one saw coming, and the girl of my dreams dating someone else.

Life is such a fucking bitch sometimes.

Especially when hindsight is 20/20 and you know damn well you could’ve prevented or, at the very least, changed the outcome.

All I had to do was pick up the phone that fateful night six weeks ago. Maybe if Pops had heard my voice, had had someone to talk him through his grief, he’d still be here. If I’d noticed how much he was missing his own girl, I wouldn’t have gone on and on about mine every time I visited. Instead of listening to his advice about how to win over my crush, I could have listened to more of his stories about the love of his life. Maybe if I’d just paid a little more attention when he came to see me play for the state championship, I’d have noticed he was off. But, no. I was too busy celebrating. Too busy searching for the gorgeous, blue eyes I fantasize about every night in the sea of fans and exhausted, sweaty football players. 

I never did find her in the crowd that day. 

That was another missed opportunity. With all the adrenaline coursing through my veins, I would’ve finally done it. I would have kissed the fuck out of her and, hell…probably asked her to marry me. Then she would’ve laughed, and we both might have brushed it off as a joke and byproduct of the euphoria of a big win. The biggest win.

Followed by two of the toughest losses I’ve ever had to choke down.

It’s fucking ridiculous I was more concerned about landing a date with the girl who doesn’t even give a damn about me instead of spending time with my grandfather. My priorities have been fucked up for way too long. I just never imagined she’d force me to set them straight, but only after it was too late. Pops is gone. Evie’s moved on. And I’m just…left behind.

My door abruptly swings open, which nearly causes me to fall out of my seat and onto the pavement.

“Get your brooding ass out of this fine car and into the building, Falls.”

I roll my eyes and stifle a smartass retort, choosing to reach over to the passenger seat for my backpack instead of punching Alex. He’s been an unfailing rock of support for me since Pops’ funeral. His methods of trying to cheer me up where Evie and her new boyfriend are concerned aren’t as welcome, but they’re still well meaning.

He keeps stride with me as we cross the parking lot to the entrance of hell, a.k.a. Ironville High. “So, I was thinking, tonight after the game, we hit the diner and see what single chicks take the bait. Then head back to my place for some real fun.”

I don’t even bother to hide my scoff. “Real fun” to Alex means making out until he at least reaches second base. Or more.

“Wait a minute.” I study him as we walk through the double doors. “How do you not already have a date lined up for tonight?”

His sharp, blue eyes gleam with excitement even as he shrugs and tries to play it cool. “I don’t always have something planned. Sometimes it’s good to just fly by the seat of your pants and see where things take you. Ya know?”

Yeah. I see what he’s doing here. Trying to get me to buy his line of bullshit and make me believe everything will be okay. Same fucking song and dance I’ve been hearing for the past month. Whatever. I’m over it. 

“So, what you’re really saying is that, if you snag a girl at the game, I can do what I really want to do tonight?”

A voice booms behind me. “No, we’re not letting you sulk in your bedroom for another Friday night.”

I whirl around only to be met with Mike’s hard stare as he walks towards the junior wing of the building with us.

He’s probably the only person in this building more pissed off than I am Eddie got to Evie before I did. I’ve been avoiding his inevitable dressing down over the whole situation as much as possible, but it looks like my last thread of luck has finally worn thin. 

Alex claps my shoulder as I turn around. “Come on. You need to get out and live a little, bro. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

“We don’t need girls to have a good time.” Mike falls into step on my other side. “It can be just us guys tonight.”

“I don’t think your girlfriend is really going to be cool with you ditching her for a guys’ night.” I don’t have the energy not to snark back at both of them. 

That and it’s clear Mike’s just waiting for the right moment to light into me. I may as well go on the offensive before he starts his shit.

“I already told Chelsea I’d take her out tomorrow night,” Mike returns without missing a beat.

Oh, shit. He’s going to make me suffer worse than yelling at me. He’s going to twist the knife even more by pretending to be sympathetic. Dammit, why won’t they just leave me alone to my misery? It’s gonna be hard enough to play basketball tonight and pretend that everything’s fine. My teammates count on me to play to the best of my ability. Faking it through four quarters will totally drain me for the night. Sitting at the diner afterwards and watching Alex flirt with random girls just isn’t in the cards for me. It would only be worse if Evie’s working tonight and her new boy toy stops in to whisk her away for a make out session after she gets off work.

As if reading my thoughts, Mike nudges me. “Evie’s off tonight, so it’s cool. We can head there after the game then go back to Alex’s and play some PS3 until we pass out. You can take out all your aggression on Call of Duty.”

“I’m not aggressive.” Whatever else I was going to say shrivels up in my throat as we round the corner to the junior hallway of lockers. 

There, directly in my line of sight, is one thing I never in a million years expected to see.

Eddie Hinton presses Evie into her closed locker door, his hands cupping her face and his mouth plastered to hers. Time seems to come to a halt as the scene unfolds before my blinking eyes. His tall, lanky body encompasses her petite frame while he sucks at her face. I might not be a kissing expert, but it doesn’t take a genius to see her mouth is open, and his tongue is slicking through holy territory he clearly doesn’t treat the way he should. It’s as if he’s trying to slobber her into submission to prove to anyone who can see them that she’s his property to be used as he sees fit.

Words float over my head, and hands on my shoulders burn as a pounding like I’ve never felt before starts in my chest and works its way out to my limbs. The throbbing energy seems to emanate from my fingers and my toes until everything in my sight beats in time with the thrum in my brain. The very universe and everything in it pulsates with unholy precision as the ground falls away beneath my feet. Sweat beads on my upper lip and trickles down my back from the fury that burns deep in my stomach.

Out-of-body experiences are generally reserved for those who are near death.

Is this what it feels like to die?

“He’s such a fucking exhibitionist,” Alex mutters from somewhere on my left. 

That revelation is the final blow which steals the air from my lungs.

He’s putting on a show for everyone to see.

He’s marking mygirl as his territory.

And she’s letting him.

Those should be myhands on her smooth skin, mylips worshipping hers, mytongue tangling with hers, mybody flush against hers.

She is supposed to be mine.

Just as quickly as time slowed, it goes on fast forward. Students rush around to get to their lockers and then homeroom before the bell rings. The voices in my ears sound high-pitched and distorted. Heat fills my lungs as I gasp for the breath that escaped me for precious seconds. Eddie steps away from the only girl I’ve ever wanted, a smug smile on his face, then scurries away like a cockroach that’s finished feasting on today’s menu of garbage. Like she means nothing more to him than a toy to use for his pleasure, only to be cast aside when he’s satisfied.

I never would have guessed Evie’s the kind of girl who wants to be treated that way. Clearly, I was wrong about her.

I blink again and look down to the blonde standing directly in front of me, a flirty smile on her face. She bats her eyelashes like all the girls do and twirls a lock of hair around her finger. She looks and acts exactly like every other girl who gives me the time of day. 

Her body language suggests she’ll go down on me right in the middle of the hallway if I give her the go ahead, and she’ll act like it’s her absolute honor. She hasn’t even spoken yet, but I already know whatever escapes her mouth will be all fake breathy and seductive sounding. Too bad it won’t be anything in the least bit resembling actual conversation.

They’re all the same. 

A bunch of horny, immature jersey chasers.

These are the only kinds of girls who want me.

I’m not good enough for the likes of Evie Papageorgiou.

The blonde, who isn’t even trying to hide the fact she’s eyeing my famous package, is clearly waiting for me to speak first, so I may as well get this over with. 

“Can I help you with something?”

“You sure can, Rob,” she giggles. “You can help me with anything you want, but I’d be happy with you getting us a big win tonight. Then maybe I can help you with whatever you need. Are you going to the diner after the game?”

“Easy there, Sabrina.” Alex smirks. “Any hotter on the throttle, and you’re gonna burn out the clutch.”

She stares at him with a blank expression, obviously not understanding the allegory. “Um, okay.”

The smile that spreads across my face feels forced but strangely automatic. “I could be persuaded to go to the diner tonight, but only if you’re going to be there.”

You’d think I just told her I found the cure for cancer by the way her face lights up. 

“Great! I’ll definitely see you there, then.”

She takes one last hungry perusal of my body, then glides her gaze down to my crotch before looking back up with a satisfied smile. Yeah, she wants the D. Probably that’s allshe wants of me.

She’s gone a heartbeat, or heartbreak, later.

“Did you…” Alex trips a little as he walks beside me. “Did you just make a date all by yourself? That was smooth as fuck, too! I’m so proud. My little bro is all growing up and acting like a real man.”

I spin my combination into my locker on complete autopilot. My brain still hasn’t quite processed what I just saw and did. “First time for everything, I guess.”

A large hand squeezes my shoulder from behind. Mike. 

“Rob, maybe you should wait a while. Give it some time. Get your head back in the game before going on the rebound.”

The sound of my locker slamming closed echoes down the hallway and draws the attention of everyone in the vicinity. It’s all I can do not to punch it in retaliation.

“Time for what, Mike?” I face him head on, staring right into his brown eyes, which look strangely calm after what he just saw as well. “Time to screw things up again? I can do that just fine all by myself. No point waiting for it to happen anymore. Waiting for the right time didn’t do fuck all for me, so I think I’m over that play. Maybe it’s time to make things happen the way I want.”

The looks on Alex’s and Mike’s faces are so priceless, it’s a shame my phone’s in my locker. A picture is worth a thousand words, and right now, neither one of them is saying a damn thing. Their silence is deafening and freeing all at the same time.

I brush past them and head to homeroom, my mind running a marathon. It’s well past time I quit being subtle and waiting for things to go down the way I want. All the best quarterbacks know how to make the play if it doesn’t happen. Time to start using that knowledge off the field instead of just on it. 

Time. What a ridiculous fucking concept. We all think we have it. The joke’s on us. Time is the only thing completely out of our control—it’s constantly slipping away.

So many sets of eyes are trained on me as I walk past. I’m done being under the microscope for everyone to watch and judge. If they want something to look at, I’m damn well going to give them something good.

“Who’s ready for the Warriors to kick some ass tonight?”

My shout is met with wild cheers and whistles. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s knowing my game and how to play it well. All the world’s a stage, and it’s high time I started playing for my adoring fans. 

Fuck anyone who gets in my way.

Never Again

 

Eva, junior year

“Mmm, Evie, you taste so good.”

It’s not only the fact Eddie’s mouth is a little too slobbery on my neck that makes my skin crawl. I also hate, hate, the way my name sounds on his lips. 

Forced, fake…sleazy.

Actually, that might be me projecting onto him the way I feel about being in this truck, but whatever.

“Please,” I tell him for the millionth time. “Call me Eva.”

He abandons my neck, giving me a brief respite, to look me in the eyes with a confused expression. As if we haven’t had this conversation multiple times. 

“But everyone calls you Evie?” He ends his statement with a questioning inflection.

Almost everything he says comes off unsure. It’s such an oxymoron a guy who can’t let anything certain roll off his tongue should have the confidence of a Casanova in the dark cab of his truck, where no one can bear witness to his absolute lack of skill.

My smile is decidedly less confident. “Yes, but it sounds so infantile. Don’t you think it’s a little inappropriate…here?”

Laughter nearly escapes me as he clearly tries to decode my too-big-for-his-jock-brain vocabulary, but he douses my urge when his copper eyes turn feral. 

“You’re right. Talking is the last thing we should be doing here.”

He uses his much taller frame to force me into a semi-reclined position, pressing my back against the passenger’s side door until the arm rest digs into my flesh to the point of bruising. My cry of discomfort goes unacknowledged as his mouth descends to its previous engagement of drooling on my neck.

I squirm against his chest, but his weight is no match for me, and I can’t escape this predicament. Eddie has never seemed like he might be a physical threat. Taller? Sure. Muscular? Not even a little. Guess I should know better than to judge a book by its cover and make false assumptions. 

Fear clogs my throat, making it difficult to speak. “Eddie, get off. You’re hurting me.”

“I’m hurting, too, baby. Fucking dying here.”

The sound of my nickname is bad enough with his skeevy voice, but hearing him call me something far more intimate brings bile into my throat. That nauseated feeling intensifies when he grabs my hand and directs me to rub his erection, which is pressed against his jeans.

There’s no possible way to control the shudder that courses through me at the unwanted contact. It’s not that I’m so naïve as to be completely unaware of the male anatomy during arousal. It’s just…my lady bits are in no way responding to his pheromone overload.

Of course, the anti-Casanova mistakes my movement for something else entirely and releases my hand only so he can grind himself onto me, seeking friction my body instantly rejects.

“Ohhh, yeah,” he moans into my skin. “You’re so hot for me. Turns me the fuck on?”

Again with the question-statement. Is he unsure if he’s turned on? Because his dick is rubbing against my thigh and telling a totally different story. If I’m lucky, he’ll come in his pants, and then this can be over soon.

Eddie turns his attention to my mouth, lobbing his tongue in like some kind of deranged slug. For as many girls as he’s supposedly dated, I expected a better teacher in the art of kissing. Disappointment seems to be a running theme in my life though, and this experience is no exception. While it’s somewhat hypocritical to judge him for something I’m not very practiced at either, I at least have the common sense to swallow rather than give him a drink of my saliva.

Making the best of a bad situation issomething I have experience with, and if nothing else, French-kissing with Eddie has taught me what notto do. The hope he would follow my lead has been dashed time and again on our past several dates, but I’m nothing if not stubborn. If he insists on us parking after every date, then I’m going to use it for my own personal research. I open my mouth wider against his, battling his tongue for dominance. He relents and allows me entrance.

No sooner have I managed a nice, stroking rhythm in his mouth than images of blue-green enigmatic eyes, a dimpled, shy smile, and sandy-brown hair burn through my brain. My fingers thread through sticky locks laden with too much gel, and the spell breaks. My eyes pop open as Eddie resumes his wet tongue-fucking. Even in the dark, the image before me is nothing like what my mind conjured up. Eddie is tall and lanky, with a typical basketball player’s physique. He wears his dark-brown hair on the long side, and it usually flops down over his forehead. His amber eyes are often full of mischief, and his cheeks are smooth. No dimples to be found here, folks. Move along. 

He’s everything Rob is not. Including dull, witless, selfish, and completely horny at all times.

What started out as innocent flirting to dispel the rumors I might be a lesbian at school turned into Eddie making me feel not only beautiful, but wanted. That attention went to my head and quickly spiraled out of control. Just because Eddie made it publicly clear he wanted me didn’t mean any of the other guys at school saw things his way. More likely than not, they wonder what in the hell he sees in me. 

Eddie’s not a bad guy. He’s just not the guy for me, in spite of his efforts to convince me otherwise.

Blinking back tears and struggling to breathe, I break off his latest attempt to drown me. His leech of a mouth migrates south again. If he doesn’t stop soon, he’s going to leave hickeys all over me, and I absolutely don’t want to deal with the amount of concealer necessary to hide that evidence. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way after our fourth date.

“Eddie, can we…slow down a little?” My voice comes out weaker than I intend, and sure enough, my words go unheeded by the horny guy on top of me.

He doesn’t back off, doesn’t even break contact as he uses his body to leverage my legs open so he can slide between them. The damn bench seat in the cab of his truck only makes it easier for him to maneuver me exactly the way he wants as my body slides over the tan leather with little resistance.

My heart beats a rapid rhythm in my chest, punctuated by every sharp thrust of his erection against me. How he can dry-hump me with both of us in jeans and feel any pleasure from it is beyond me. With every grind of his pelvis against mine, the soft cotton of my panties isn’t enough to prevent my zipper from biting into my sensitive skin.

“Eddie, that hurts,” I whine. 

“I know it does. Fuck, my cock is throbbing.” 

At least he acknowledged me this time. I expect him to retreat back to his side of the truck, but once again…disappointment. Instead of shutting this down, he lifts his body off mine just enough to open the button and zipper of his jeans and shove his boxers and pants down in one rough tug.

His erection springs free, setting off a five-alarm cacophony of warning bells in my head.

Using my momentary reprieve from his crushing weight, I pull my legs up and scramble into a crouched position in the corner of the seat.

Forget weak. My voice downright shakes now. “Wh-what are you doing?”

The corner of his mouth lifts in a half smile, half grimace. “You said you were hurting. Don’t you want me to make it all better?”

Oh, hell no. “That isn’t what I meant.”

“I know you’re a virgin, Evie. It’s okay. You don’t have to be scared. I know what I’m doing.”

I seriously doubt that if the way he kisses is any indication. Even if he does know what he’s doing, I have zero desire to lose my virginity to Eddie Hinton. It was never supposed to go this far.

He’s so lost in stroking his dick he seems completely unaware of the terror and the internal battle I’m currently waging.

“Eddie, I can’t do this anymore.”

“You can be on top, babe. I don’t care as long as my cock gets inside your tight virgin pussy.”

Any stupid notion I previously had for making myself seem more experienced by dating him flies away as he sits on the seat and grunts while he continues to masturbate in front of me. My dumbass idea has totally backfired. The only guy who desires me is ready to blow his load all over his pants while I fantasize about a guy who’s never shown me a bit of interest.

“You’re not listening. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Eddie seems to snap out of his haze of lust and gapes at me as his hand stills on his dick. “What do you mean, you don’t want to do this anymore? We’ve been on six dates. I think we’ve been together long enough to go through with this?”

I bite my lip until the coppery taste of blood blooms on my tongue. Now doesn’t seem like the right time to remind him he’s never asked me point-blank to be his girlfriend. Only because it would be logical for him to argue everyone at school assumes I am, and I’ve said nothing to correct them.

Then again, Eddie’s hardly logical.

“Um…we’re not together. We’ve been on a couple of dates, yes, but that’s it. That’s all this is. Just dating.” 

Quite frankly, that’s the only thing keeping my guilt in check.

I can’t quite make out the color of his face in the darkness that surrounds us, but I’ve no doubt it’s red. He’s practically vibrating with anger. 

“And do you have any idea how much money I’ve spent on these six dates? Huh?”

Well, we haven’t gone anywhere all that nice or fancy, so I’m betting not much. But, again, biting my lip. And my tongue.

“I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time and money on you, Eva. I want a return on my investment.”

I blink my eyes in slow shock. That might be the first sort of intelligent thing he’s said during the aforementioned six dates. 

“Well?” he shouts.

“Well, what?” I’m finding it difficult to have a rational, calm conversation with Eddie when his limp noodle is still hanging out of his open jeans. At least that means it’s game over for sexy times, which is a small relief.

“Are you gonna give me what you owe me or not?”

I’m not sure, but I think my eyeballs just popped out of their sockets. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

“Yeah, I heard you. I just can’t believe you said it.”

“What is this, huh? Why are you stringing me along like this?”

My rage is replaced with a blanket of guilt. Stringing him along was the absolute last thing I intended. 

“I’m sorry. I never meant for you to feel that way. I thought we were just having fun. I mean, do you really want to get serious with me? Come on.”

My attempt at placating him falls embarrassingly flat even to my own ears. It’s amazing— the lies we tell ourselves to justify our bad behavior. Hearing my own rationalization out loud is a definite wake-up call that the ends, in this case, absolutely do not justify the means.

“You know what? No. I didn’t want to get serious with you, but it felt like that’s what you needed to give it up to me, and I was trying to be a nice guy about it.”

And…right back to rage. “Is that all I was ever worth to you? An easy lay? Am I the basketball team’s bet? The football team had so much success in the fall trying to see who could lay their chosen target first, so you guys figured you’d do a replay? What do you win if you fuck me, Eddie? If I announce to everyone at school on Monday that we’re not dating anymore, is another player gonna try to shoot and score in your place?”

“No!”

That’s the only denial he gives, which doesn’t make me feel a whole lot of confidence this isn’t a replay of the football team’s fall project. We geeky girls who don’t fawn all over the jocks are nothing more than a dare to them. Prizes to be won and deflowered in the name of sowing their wild oats and making themselves feel like no female can resist them. Just the thought of potentially being used for that game fires up an unholy level of righteous indignation in my veins.

The silence between us stretches on in the night. Snow flurries dance outside the warm cab of the truck, creating a dichotomous peacefulness outside while tension brews between us. It’s strangely poetic.

“Eva, I’m sorry.” He reaches for me and, because there’s nowhere to escape from him in his truck, pulls me against his side. 

I dart my gaze in every direction but at his crotch, which is way too close for my comfort. 

“Let’s just start over?”

Nope. Game over. I cannot hear one more single question that isn’t really, endure one more night of making out with him while thinking of someone else, or put down one more attempt to have sex. I can’t do it. The fluctuations between guilt and annoyance are simply too exhausting.

“I don’t think so. Can you please just take me home?”

“Aww, come on, baby. Don’t be that way. Think of it as our first fight. Now, we get to have make-up sex.” He grabs my jaw, pulls my face to his, and slobbers all over my mouth.

I shove him and scramble away as quickly as possible. My options are limited, but my choice is clear. I open the passenger door, then climb out of the truck, fumbling in my purse for my cell.

“What the hell, Eva? Get back in the truck?” Eddie tears around the front of the hood and stops just inches away from where I’m shivering in the biting winter wind.

“No. Go home. I’ll get my own ride.” I’m too busy scrolling through my contacts and deciding who to call for rescue to pay attention to what Eddie’s up to.

He grips my arm to the point of pain as he drags me back toward the royal-blue Chevy Silverado.

Panic is a healthy emotion, contrary to popular belief. As long as it doesn’t overwhelm, a person can channel that terror into action. Most of the time in a fight-or-flight situation, people allow fear to consume them to the point of paralysis. After years of group-therapy sessions for abused kids and some personal training from Mike, I’m practically a pro at replacing terror with fury. Survival of the fittest: adapt or face extinction.

Eddie turns to me as he hauls me toward that metal sex trap. “Baby, get back inside. Let’s just talk it–”

He doesn’t get another word out. My fist makes contact with his left eye socket.

The vibration of impact sends pain skittering up my forearm and into my elbow. Mike always says that’s how you know you’ve landed a solid blow to your opponent.

Sure enough, Eddie sinks to his knees, clutching his face. “What the fuck, Eva?”

“No means no, Hinton. I’m not having sex with you. I asked you to take me home. You didn’t give me any other choice.”

Seconds ago, I was completely sure of my actions. Totally convinced I was being threatened to the point of needing to protect myself. But, now, with Eddie rocking back and forth and pretty much crying on the ground, I feel like I might have overreacted. Second-guessing my actions seems to be my calling in life.

Still, when he leaps to his feet as only a basketball player with years of experience can, I take a healthy step away from him. 

“You know what? Fuck you, Eva,” he grinds out before storming around to the driver’s side. “Not even your golden pussy is worth this bullshit.”

He tears away into the night, leaving me stranded on the side of a deserted back road. Tears slip down my cheeks, blurring my vision, as I tap the one number in my phone of the person who will answer and come get me without question or judgment. 

Mike.

He answers on the third ring, panting for breath. “Yeah?”

“Um, are you busy?” My sniffle betrays me, but there’s no help for it. Even if I wasn’t crying, it’s freezing out here, and my nose is running double time from both.

Some muffled sounds in the background turn into silence. 

“Evie? Where are you? What’s wrong?”

“Um, I’m not quite sure where I am. Can I text you my GPS location?”

“What the fuck do you mean, you don’t know where you are? Where’s Eddie? I thought you two had a date tonight?”

“We did, and now, we don’t. Can you please come get me, Mike? I know it’s late and you’re probably busy, but I’m really cold, and I didn’t…” My stupid voice breaks as the first sob escapes my throat. 

There’s no point fighting it. He’ll know I’ve been crying when he sees me. Dammit, I wish I’d have thought to grab my coat before jumping out of Eddie’s truck.

“Are you outside?” 

The sound of his engine turning over filters through the speaker.

“Yeah. We were parked…” 

In spite of the bitter temperatures, my cheeks heat with embarrassment. This is not the type of conversation I ever pictured having with my friend who’s more like my brother.

“I’m on my way. Text me where you are. I’ll come to you. And stay back from the road. If any cars go by, hide in the brush until I can get there. Don’t take a ride from anyone no matter how cold you feel, you hear me? If Eddie comes back, you call me.”

“Okay.”

He hangs up before I can get in another apology. 

The only thing to do now is wait. 

The longer I sit in the frozen gravel, the more guilt, shame, and embarrassment eat away at me. What the hell was I thinking by dating Eddie? I wasn’t, and that’s the truth of the matter. The idea that desperate times call for desperate measures is ludicrous and clearly not applicable to every situation in life. My desperation got me into this mess. 

I tried everything I could think of to get Rob to notice me. To pay attention to me. I watched how the other girls did it. I made mental notes on what worked and what didn’t. And I adapted, creating a method of catching his eye that was carefully suited to Rob’s particular tastes and dislikes. 

The only thing I couldn’t ever attain was being unobtainable or having enough experience with boys to make him think I’d be a good choice. That seemed to always make the other guys drool. For as much as they claim to love virgins, they always brag about girls who know what they’re doing, too. It doesn’t make any sense, but then again, the male brain is a total oxymoron. The grass is always greener, and boys tend to want what they can’t have.

We all do.

It was so foolish to think dating Eddie would affect Rob’s interest. Not only has he never seen me as anything more than an acquaintance, but it wasn’t fair to Eddie to use him that way. Not that that asshole should be dating anyone, but still.

I’m such a fuck-up.

Headlights gleam in the distance, accompanied by the faint sound of an engine and gravel being kicked up on the back road. Heeding Mike’s advice, I step back into the line of trees, hidden until the sight of his old, red Civic is unmistakable. Just to be sure, I wait until he pulls over to the side of the road and steps out of the car, frowning at his cell in his hand.

The moment I step into view, he’s on me faster than a freight train. His strong arms band around me, reminding me he’ll always be my rock. 

“What the fuck happened? Did he hurt you?”

I shake my head and retreat from his embrace, wiping my snotty nose on my arm. No point trying to look cool and put together now. I’m fucking falling apart. Mike would be able to sense it even if I didn’t show a thing wrong.

“He, uh… Let’s just say we had different views of how the night should have gone.” I peer around Mike’s solid form to his still-running car, only to see Chelsie glaring at me from the front passenger window.

Mike sighs and wraps an arm around my shoulders to steer me toward the vehicle. “All right. I’m just glad I found you. Let’s get you warmed up. Then we can talk.”

The heat is blessedly cranked on high in the little sedan. My skin burns with the thawing process. As we travel through the labyrinth of back roads to reach civilization once again, my eyelids droop, and my body melts into the worn upholstery of the car. The unmistakable scent cocktail of latex and sex that hangs heavily in the interior isn’t enough to keep my drowsiness at bay. Only enough to make me feel even guiltier about ruining someone else’s night. Chelsie hasn’t spoken a word to me since I climbed in.

“Well?” Mike prompts from his seat. “You going to tell me what happened, or am I going to have to drag it out of you?”

“Can we talk about it later, please? I just wanna go home and forget this night ever happened.”

Chelsie shoots me a look of irritation that solidifies my game plan to maintain radio silence in the car. Her lips are kiss-swollen, her usually neat, dishwater-blond hair a mess around her heart-shaped face. If the aroma in the air wasn’t enough clue, her freshly fucked look definitely lets me know I interrupted their evening in more ways than one.

Mike is either oblivious to the tension radiating from his girlfriend, or he’s just not willing to wait to find out why I summoned his ass out here in the middle of sex. “We can do this either the easy way or the hard way, Evie. I know damn well you didn’t get out of his truck in the middle of nowhere over a simple disagreement.”

“If she doesn’t want to talk about it, then don’t force her, Mike. Jesus,” Chelsie grumbles.

For once, she’s taking my side. If only it weren’t because she really doesn’t care to hear my pathetic little sob story. Chelsie has hated me since she and Mike got together. 

At first, she used me for intel since we’re both in band, and everyone at school knows how tight Mike and I are. She acted like the ultimate ass kisser all during freshman year when I spoon fed her anything and everything she wanted to know about her crush. As soon as Mike took the bait? She grew to hate me because Mike wouldn’t let their new relationship get in the way of our bond. 

Her resentment toward me escalates every year. She’s apparently of the mindset that a guy shouldn’t have any friends if he has a girlfriend. I’m pretty sure she dislikes his best friends, Rob and Alex, nearly as much as me. The only reason she gives them some small leeway is because neither of them possesses a vagina. It’s like she expects Mike to cheat on her with me or something, which is just ridiculous. Our being involved in a romantic relationship is only a stone’s throw away from incest. 

I gag in the back seat at the thought.

Mike’s gruff voice filters through my disgust. “Either you tell me what happened or, the second I drop you girls off, I’m calling Rob and Alex, and we’re gonna go find Hinton and beat it out of him. So, what’s it gonna be?”

I roll my eyes. Mike may be a lot of things, but physically violent isn’t one of them. He’s a lover not a fighter. The man lives and breathes football because it’s the only place he feels appropriate to release his pent-up aggression. 

“I promise it was no big deal. Eddie’s just a slimy asshole. There’s no need to call anyone and definitely no need to beat anyone’s ass.”

“You should listen to Eva. I refuse to be the girlfriend of a thug,” Chelsie pipes up. “If you so much as lay a finger on Eddie, we’re through. Besides, Eva’s a big girl. She doesn’t need you constantly defending her. Let her clean up her own messes.”

My hackles rise with each snide word that escapes her putrid, jealous mouth. It’s one thing to dislike me, but whatever happened to chicks before dicks? What if something worse had happened to me tonight? Lots of girls in my stupid, stupid position either wouldn’t be able to defend themselves or wouldn’t know how to say no to something they didn’t want. Her behavior is beyond rude. It’s downright heartless and purposefully obtuse. How utterly fucking ridiculous is it this pretty girl who has one of the best guys I’ve ever known eating out of her hand should feel threatened by geeky, undesirable me to the point of not caring if I might have been raped tonight?

And that’s the crux of the whole matter, isn’t it? I could never hope to land a guy like Mike for myself. Up until freshman year, I never even wanted to. I was raised by a single mother to be an independent, self-sufficient young woman. Boys were only trouble, as my father had so graciously taught me. And, after my whole family splintered apart when my father left, my mom also learned the hard way you can’t count on anyone but yourself—a lesson she’s hammered into my and my sister’s heads over and over again. When will I ever learn?

“Do you two even hear yourselves right now? Evie, I know there is no wayyou left that truck without good reason. And, Chels, put yourself in her shoes. What could I possibly do to you to make you think stranding yourself on a deserted road in the middle of winter was your only option?”

When neither of us offers any response, Mike fishes his cell from the cup holder. 

“That’s it. I’m calling Rob.”

The brain is a mysterious organ. It has the uncanny ability to see things exactly as they are and to play horrible, horrible tricks on us. It can lock up and cease to function due to disease or injury, or it can spur us to respond by bypassing learned neural circuitry and tapping into the survival-based reflex system. 

My brain goes offline and my self-preservation kicks in as I lunge forward to grab the phone out of Mike’s hand before he can react.

The faint sound of Rob’s voice filters into the otherwise silent cabin of the car. “Hello? Mike, you there? I’m out with Sabrina right now–”

I end the call with a jab to the screen that would have shattered it if it weren’t for the protective cover.

The thought of Rob having a nice date and maybe getting some from a very willing female while I froze my ass off in the cold for twenty minutes turns my embarrassment over the night’s events to violent anger. If it wasn’t for his stupid, perfect ass, I wouldn’t ever have been in this situation. Obviously, I’ve been a fool all this time to think he could possibly reciprocate the feelings I have for him. Tonight was a mistake I allowed, even created. But I’ll be damned if I don’t learn my lessons when life hands me shit.

Never. Again.

“Mike, thank you for picking me up. And I love you–” 

Chelsie scoffs aloud, but I ignore her and continue on. 

“But, we are never speaking of tonight. Ever. I swear to you nothing happened. Listen to your girlfriend,and let it go.”

“Evie…” Mike’s tone is soft, with a hint of worry.

“No. I’m fine, thanks to you. And I’ll stay that way, thanks to me.”

Biding My Time

 

 

Rob, junior year

The weekend has arrived. Sunlight beats down on the blacktop of the student parking lot, making the temperature feel warmer than it really is. The excited chatter of students spilling out of Ironville High rivals that of the birds chirping. Spring is in the air, and all is right with the world.

Mostly.

“Hey, Falls.” A skinny arm snakes around my neck, pulling me down a few inches to the left. “Heard you bagged Jackie Miller last weekend. You gonna tap that hot ass again tonight?”

I cut my gaze to the side and find Josh Duncan staring back at me, a smug grin plastered on his stupid face. This kid has balls of brass—I’ll give him that. And that’s all.

Since he got named to the varsity baseball team this year, his sophomore ego has grown about fifty sizes too big for his lanky body. Even though he’s a good six inches shorter than I am, he puffs his chest out like a damn peacock as we head toward our cars. It’s like he expects his status to rise just by being seen talking to me as if we’re friends. He’s constantly pushing himself into the inner circle of varsity jocks, convinced his obnoxious jokes and pussy talk make him one of us.

A fucking joke is what he is.

Shaking free of his hold, I remind myself he isn’t important enough to correct. “I have other plans tonight. Jackie’s all yours if you want.”

It’s not a total lie. It’s also not the truth I should be telling him.

“Sweet.” He bites his fist as we approach a very familiar rusty, black Kia with the hood open. 

Bent over the engine block is the sweetest ass I’ve ever seen. 

Josh doesn’t miss it, either. He veers in her direction. “On second thought…”

I grab him hard by the back of the neck before he gets too far away. “That’s only a good idea if you feel like dying today, my man.”

“The fuck, Falls? Why you gotta be like that? You get all the pussy you want at this school. Help a brother out.”

“I am helping you out. Everyone knows Evie’s a man-eater. Go mack on Jackie. She’s more your speed.”

“Yeah, but Eva’s hot body makes a man forget what a bitch she is sometimes. Thanks for the reminder. I was about to do something really stupid.” A grin spreads across his face.

I’d love nothing more than to wipe it off him.

“You couldn’t keep up with Jackie, huh? I hear she’s a real wildcat.”

“Something like that.” I sigh in frustration as I watch Evie fiddle uselessly with some wires. 

While Josh interrogates me about Jackie’s sexual preferences, which I honestly know nothing about, a new threat approaches Evie.

She startles when he places a hand on the small of her back. If looks could kill, I wouldn’t have to lift a finger because she’d already have the guy bleeding at her feet. That idea really shouldn’t make me as happy as it does. 

Still, he doesn’t seem to be taking the hint. Evie takes a defensive stance, her arms crossed over her chest. Leaving Josh without a word or a look back, I make my way to the standoff not ten yards away.

Evie’s eyes widen as she sees me approach at the guy’s back. I’m just close enough to hear what he’s spouting off to her.

“…in exchange, you could show me how you work that magic mouth of yours.”

In my head, the next few seconds play out very clearly. I tap the asshole on his shoulder, and just as he turns to face me, my fist makes a satisfying crunching sound against his face. He crumples to the ground in pain and abject fear. Evie thanks me for coming to her defense, I fix her beat-up sedan for her, then we ride off into the sunset.

So simple. So easy.

So not my reality.

Instead of getting myself expelled for assault on school property, I simply wait until I’m only an inch from the guy before clearing my throat. “Car trouble?”

He whips around to face me. The panicked look on his face almost makes me laugh out loud.

Not so tough when someone’s around to overhear your vile filth, are ya, buddy?

“Oh, hey, Rob!” he squeaks. “I, uh, didn’t see you back there. Yeah, Eva here is just…having some issues. I’m gonna help her out though, so it’s all good.”

I squint at him until recognition sets in. Tate Barnes. Another fucking sophomore. What is it with these guys? They’re like a plague on the female population of Ironville. His brother Trent is in my class and on the football team. He’s not nearly as much of an asshole as this little guy.

I lean down to whisper in his ear. “If you ever talk to her like that again, I’ll break your fucking neck.”

A loud bang followed by a shout of, “Fuck!” interrupts our little moment.

We both turn toward the commotion and find Evie sucking on her finger. Tate’s eyes widen even further, this time in arousal. The little punk is only thinking about his earlier proposition, not the fact she clearly hurt herself.

A loud crack of my knuckles brings him down a peg. I jerk my head to the side to indicate he should get lost before I make good on myearlier proposition. He’s smarter than he looks, because he doesn’t waste any time before making his retreat.

“What’s going on, Papageorgiou?” My voice is probably an octave too high, so I busy myself with looking under the hood.

Her glare burns the side of my already-heated face, so I take a deep breath to focus on her problem and not her. Judging by the amount of corrosion on her ancient battery terminals, I’m gonna guess it won’t start. 

“Does the engine turn over at all?”

“It just makes some sort of clicking sound.” She colors her answer with a hard voice.

Casting my gaze to the side, I give her the once over to make sure she didn’t hurt herself worse than I first assumed. That probably wasn’t my smartest idea, because she’s still sucking on her finger, her blue eyes lasered in on the engine like she could will it to start with her superhuman mind power. Damn, but she looks good. Her hair’s a frizzy mess of tight curls that spill out of the bun on top of her head. She’s wearing her large, black-framed glasses today, which match her black Metallica tee. Her ripped jeans give off an edgy vibe that excites every nerve ending in my body. 

Her drastic style change from girly to badass is the stuff wet dreams are made of. 

Coupled with the rumors going around about her “magic mouth,” it’s no wonder half of my time at school is spent threatening the douche canoes who want a piece of her.

Fuck that shit.

I already suffered through her being with someone else for a few short weeks. Didn’t like it. Not about to let it happen again.

“Shit!” She kicks the old bumper with her Doc. “I’m supposed to be at work in fifteen minutes!”

“Well, you’ve got two choices.” After another deep breath, my voice comes out steadier than I feel.  “I can bring my car over and try to give you a jump, but you’ll probably still have to get a ride home from the diner. And your battery’s so old there’s no guarantee that’ll work. Or I can just drive you over there now.”

She opens her mouth, no doubt to argue, but I cut her off before she can deny me this small chance.

“You’ll only be five minutes late instead of probably a half hour if I take you now.” 

That did not come out at all the way I intended. A quick cough brings me back to my senses. Even after all of this time, this girl ties my tongue up and flash-freezes my brain. Keeping my internal filter in place is a very real struggle in her presence.

Her eyebrows furrow, and she switches from sucking on her finger to chewing her thumbnail. Her unsure gaze falls on me only briefly before she scans the parking lot for a better option.

Come on, come on. Take a chance on me, Evie. I won’t let you down the way he did.

Normally, I’d give her all the time in the world to come to the obvious choice, but out of the corner of my eye, I see Sabrina approaching with purpose in her long strides. 

She didn’t take real kindly to our horribly awkward make-out session after the only date we went on this past winter, and she’s been relentlessly pursuing me for a second chance ever since. The last thing anyone needs is for her to make a scene in the parking lot. Somehow, the girl has gotten it into her head that, if we just try it again, we’ll have better results. I’m not about to tell her the only reason it didn’t go the way she had hoped the first time is because I couldn’t get my mind off the gorgeous brunette beside me.

Every step Sabrina takes toward us ramps up my anxiety over the impending explosion until I can’t wait for an answer any longer. 

“Tick tock. Pick your poison.” My prompt comes out a little too urgently, judging by Evie’s icy glare.

“Fine,” she huffs. “I don’t really have a choice.”

I slam the hood closed as she grabs her backpack out of the car. Without waiting to see if Evie follows, I make quick tracks to the other side of the parking lot, unlocking my Mustang with the fob. Am I avoiding the inevitable? Maybe. Will I keep running like a cowardly lion for as long as it takes until Sabrina moves on to another target? You bet your ass. How is it even possible for me to tell her the truth?

Yeah, sorry, Sabrina. It’s never gonna work out between us. I only used you as a distraction to get over the girl who broke my heart. Sorry about my lack of skill in the making out department, but you were my first kiss, first grope, first real date, and that thought makes me want to puke and/or punch something.

Nope. Not gonna do it.

No girl wants to hear that not only are they a stand-in for someone else, but that you regret you wasted every first you always hoped would be with another on them. I might be disgusted by the chicks who throw themselves at me, but it doesn’t mean I have to be an asshole to them.

It's not until I’m opening the driver door that I realize Evie isn’t climbing in across from me. I scan the parking lot until I find her frantically gesturing to her friend, Jess. She’s not even twenty yards away from me, but it might as well be twenty miles. It’s clear from watching their interaction, Jess is going to give her a ride to the diner.

Sure enough, Evie shrugs her shoulders in a lame apology. 

Our gazes lock for only a few seconds, but in that small amount of time, an eternity of things seems to pass between us. Through the hardened shell she wears like armor around herself, I still see the beautiful, intelligent girl I want with every fiber of my being. And, when she looks at me, I just know she sees through my mask of a typical jock, too. We’ve both been acting for so long. Too long. 

She blinks, then climbs into the passenger side of Jess’s little coupe. It seems we’ll be acting for a bit longer than I hoped.

Damn. Foiled again.

A deep laugh behind my back scares the shit out of me. It’s not until I turn around and see Alex loping toward me that I realize Sabrina has given her chase up for today.

“What the hell was that all about?” He winks, probably having watched the entire crash and burn with Evie unfold.

“Ah, you know. Just the usual for me. What are you so happy about? And why are you still here?”

“Oh, no reason. Hey, I need a favor though.”

Of course, he does.

“Would you be interested in going to the diner later? I got Kelly to agree to a date tonight, but only if she can bring her friend.” Alex plasters on his patented puppy-dog pleading look.

“You know, I’m not sure if you do this to yourself because you’re running out of girls who don’t already hate you, or if you’re trying to help me in a really roundabout kind of way.”

He shrugs as he leans against the hood of my car. “Does it matter? You get to spend the evening eating good food and drooling over Eva.”

“Yeah, but it kind of defeats the purpose for Evie to see me out with another chick, even if I’m not interested.”

“Hey.” He punches me in the chest. “You owe me for all the times you make me sit in that damn diner withoutgirls.”

He’s got me there.

“All right, fine. What time?”

“Eight.”

“That’s a little early for you, isn’t it?”

A sly smile spreads across his face. “Yeah, but she has an early curfew.”

“Alex, just how old are these girls?”

He pushes off the car, digging for his keys in his pocket. “Freshmen.”

“Aww, man! Are you fucking kidding me?” There is no way I’m taking a freshman on even a fake double date.

“It’ll be less weird if you have an actual reason to be there instead of just blatantly stalking Eva, you know. You could be a little more grateful.” He walks away to his own car.

I roll my eyes and climb in to start the engine. Alex makes a valid point. 

Evie’s been in a rut ever since she and Eddie broke up five months ago. The rumors that have ramped up about her ever since have put her in some kind of funk she just can’t seem to shake.

It’s obvious to me they’re not true, but she’s so damn gorgeous everyone else seems to be buying into it. 

It’s not really fair of me to make a move until she gets her head on straight. I figured a few months would be enough, but the school year is almost over, and she shows no signs of making peace with everything. It’s seriously unfair how much our lives have changed. No way am I gonna let her out of my sight and wait for some other asshole to mess with her head ever again. For now, I’m just biding my time until the stars align. 

I waited nearly three years and almost lost her.

I can wait the whole summer more if that’s what she needs, as long as I’m close enough to make sure she’s safe.

Safe and ready for me.

I don’t know what it’s going to take with her. If there’s one thing I learned over the miserable winter months, though, it’s not to give up when the going gets tough.

I’m going to make Evie Papageorgiou mine.

All that’s left is to figure out how.

Game on.

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