Authors: Denise Grover Swank
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
Denise Grover Swank
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
Copyright 2013 by Denise Grover Swank
All rights reserved.
Other books by Denise Grover Swank:
Rose Gardner Mysteries
(Humorous southern mysteries)
TWENTY-EIGHT AND A HALF WISHES
TWENTY-NINE AND A HALF REASONS
THRITY AND A HALF EXCUSES (2013)
(Paranormal thriller/Urban fantasy)
On the Otherside Series
(Young adult science fiction/romance)
The Curse Keepers
(Adult urban fantasy)
THE CURSE KEEPERS (Fall 2013)
To my daughters:
May you find your own Tuckers
I stand outside the doorway of my Western civ class, caught in a dilemma. Either go in and have thirty pairs of eyes stare at me or leave, which means missing my test. The decision is already made. I only need to open the door and walk in.
I suck oxygen into my lungs, past my tightened airway, as I try to calm down and turn the doorknob.
My professor is standing at the white board, writing
in a big scrawl with a blue marker that is running out of ink. He barely pauses as he lifts his eyes at the sound of the door hinges before returning to his task, yet my heart still pounds in my chest. My breath still catches.
I can’t do this.
In spite of the surety that I will flunk the test and ruin my 4.0 GPA, I choose to leave. I spin around and slam into something hard. When I stumble backward, strong hands grab my arms and right me.
“I know I make girls swoon, but this is a first,” a deep voice drawls.
I instantly know whom this voice belongs to. Tucker Price. Southern University’s soccer team superstar and resident man-whore. He sits in the end row, second seat.
I jerk out of his hold and confusion flickers in his eyes before he grins. “You’re not the first girl to fall for me.”
It has to be one of the worst lines ever, but it doesn’t stop half the class from laughing.
I’m about to combust from embarrassment.
Dr. Eggleston looks up this time and puts a hand on his hip. One bushy gray eyebrow hitches as he stares. “Are you two going to stand there for the rest of the class or take a seat?”
My face is on fire. I force my eyes to focus in the empty seat in the middle aisle, middle row—my usual seat—and I take purposeful steps toward it. If I sit down without attracting any more attention, this moment will pass, and I will be alone with my mortification.
With shaky fingers, I dig my Scantron sheet and pencil from my bag as Dr. Eggleston begins to pass out booklets. “When you have completed the test, turn it in at my desk, and you are free to leave.”
The guy in the seat in front of me hands me a test, and I set it down on the desk, smoothing the sheet with my hand as I try to get a grip on my emotions.
Arriving late to class is no big deal
. Sure, it’s slightly embarrassing, but people like Tucker Price thrive on the attention. People like me want to curl up and die.
Lightheaded from my humiliation, I try to read the questions swimming on the page in front of me. I know this information backward and forward. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve found Ancient Greece fascinating since I first studied the Greek gods in fourth grade. Nevertheless, my heart still beats furiously and blood whooshes in my ears, making it difficult to focus. I might know everything under the sun about the Spartans and Athenians, but it doesn’t do me any good if I don’t answer the questions.
I hear the rustle of paper and look up. People are already moving onto the second page of the test, and I haven’t even read the first question. A quick glance up at the clock tells me I’ve wasted ten minutes.
Sucking in a deep breath, I close my eyes, holding oxygen in my lungs until I’m sure they will burst. When I release the breath, I imagine pushing all my anxiety out with it. After a couple of rounds, I settle enough to start. Fourteen months of free campus counseling boiled down into a simple breathing exercise.
Forty minutes later, I rise from my chair, my completed test and essay in my hand. Most of the class has finished, but two girls still huddle over their essays, their hands flying as they hurry to finish. In the second row, Tucker stares out the window, his pencil hovering over his composition book. For someone who is about to run out of time, he looks remarkably relaxed.
I should be more like Tucker Price
. The thought burns itself in my head, and I want a gallon of bleach to purge the errant idea from my brain. Never in a million years would I want to be like Tucker Price.
Unfocused. Irresponsible. Dangerous.
Tucker Price’s reputation is well earned, and if the university rumor factory is correct, Tucker is well on his way to losing his soccer scholarship after his latest DUI.
I turn in my test and grab a quick lunch in the student union before I report for my shift in the math lab. My friend Tina sits next to me, plopping her tray on the table as her backpack slips down her arm. Tina is a sophomore I met last semester. There are few female math majors at Southern, and we tend to hang out together. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we both have forty-five minutes between our last class and our shift in the lab so we usually meet for lunch.
“My friend Kyle is having a party on Friday night,” Tina says before she takes a bite of her sandwich. Her eyes lift to me to gauge my reaction.
Tina is not the typical math student. She straddles both the demanding academic world and a social life. Parties included. For some reason she seems intent on dragging me from my comfortable hovel.
“Tina, we’ve discussed this before—”
“You don’t date. You don’t go to parties. Yeah, I know, I know,” she grumbles.
I frown. “You don’t ask anyone else from the math department to go. Why me?”
“Don’t you see that you have so much more potential than spending all of your time studying?”
Her face lowers close to mine. “Look, Scarlett. Everyone knows you’re a brilliant mathematics student. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun. Just once.” Her eyes plead with mine. “You don’t have to say yes or no. Just think about it. Okay?” She gives me an exaggerated pouty face.
I laugh, shaking my head, my ponytail brushing my back. “You’re incorrigible.”
“And that’s why you love me.”
I laugh again and see Tucker at a table twenty feet away. He’s sitting with several soccer players and their groupies. Two of the girls openly flirt and Tucker flashes them his cocky grin.
I’ve paid little attention to him before, other than casually observing his self-destructive behavior. Rumor has it he’s on academic, as well as behavioral, probation. Tucker might be Southern University’s soccer superstar, but he’s close to burning out at the pace he’s keeping. Watching him now, I know that people like him bring this upon themselves. Tucker Price has been given a gift I’d kill for—a full-ride scholarship—but he chooses to throw it away so he can party and screw.
He catches me watching him, and I freeze, waiting for the look of derision that’s sure to come. I know that my own look of disgust isn’t what he’s used to seeing. Instead, his face loses all expression before his arrogant grin is plastered back on his face, like he’s just taken a stage break and he’s jumping back into a performance.
Tina stands to leave, noticing that something has caught my attention. She grins when she sees who it is. “There may be hope for you yet.”
“What? No. Way.”
“I heard he almost got arrested last weekend for disturbing the peace, but the policeman turned out to be a huge soccer fan and let him off with a warning.”
I throw my trash away, but Tucker’s face haunts me while I head to the math lab for our afternoon shift, dodging the raindrops that fall as I walk across campus.
As I take my regular seat, the rain continues, heavy drops pounding the window next to me. The January afternoon perfectly reflects my mood when a few hours later, Tucker stands in the doorway of the lab, looking around. His gaze stops, and he moves toward me.
What is Tucker Price doing here?
The room isn’t that large, enough room for four tables where tutors can work with a student. Old office chairs, the fabric on the seats torn and faded, line the walls. There’s no one waiting so Tucker slides into the chair on the opposite side of my table, and lifts an eyebrow with an amused grin. “You’re in my Western civ class.”
My face burns at the reminder, and I wait for him to call me out for staring at him at lunch. Although why he’d care what I think is beyond me.
He watches me in confusion. “So you teach math?”
“Tutor.” The word catches in my throat. “I tutor in math.”
I want to scream. I want to hide in a corner. Working in the math lab is perfect for my social anxiety. While my reaction to awkward social situations has eased quite a bit since I’ve moved away from my dysfunctional family, it’s still present, even in its milder form. The math lab is one-on-one and a more controlled situation, but my run-in—literally—with Tucker earlier is pushing all my trigger buttons.
He leans forward, resting his hand on the table, and looking around before his eyes land on mine. “I need help with algebra.”
“Then you’ve come to the right place.” I search the room to see who’s available. Mark is with a pretty freshman and from the way he’s attempting to flirt, I can see they will be a while. But Tina is not only free but practically salivating at the sight of Tucker. I point toward her. “Tina will help you. Right over there.”
His forehead wrinkles. “Why can’t you do it?”
My mouth parts and a whoosh of air escapes. “I usually work with students in more advanced courses,” I say, flustered. Why would he care if I tutored him or not?
All expression leaves his face. “Are you calling me stupid, Scarlett?”
“I…no…that’s not…” How does he know my name?
A slow smile lifts his mouth. “I was teasing, but seriously.” He leans even closer. “If you teach advanced math, I’d rather have you. I’m in serious trouble if I don’t pass this class. I’m going to lose my scholarship.”
I want to tell him that’s not the only thing putting his scholarship at risk, but I figure he’s already well aware of that fact, despite the continuation of his behavior.
He continues to watch me, waiting for my answer.
I’ve never been this close to him before, and I can’t help studying him. I can see why girls fall at his feet. He’s gorgeous. Light hair with lots of natural streaks of blond from all that time in the sun. Tanned skin, with a hint of stubble, like he’d forgotten to shave this morning. But those eyes, a pale blue with just a touch of gray. I’m sure they are what seal the deal for him with the women he collects.
Only there’s no smile in his eyes. Only sadness and fear.
I should say no. I’m out of my element around him, and it will affect my ability to tutor him, but something in those eyes touches a place deep in my heart that I keep hidden from everyone. I can’t help but wonder if there’s more to Tucker Price than he shows the world.
I nod. “Okay.”
His eyes close, and his body slumps with relief. After a moment, his eyes open, and he’s the cocky guy that bumped into me hours earlier. “So let’s set up a time.”
“It doesn’t work that way. The math lab is drop-in. You work with who’s available when you come in. We can get started now.”
He frowns and his top teeth bite his lower lip.
“Why don’t you get out your problems and show me what you need help with?”
He pulls his textbook and a notebook out of his backpack. “You should know right off that math isn’t my thing.”
I can’t help but smile, in spite of my nervousness around him. “I suspect it’s more your
than you give yourself credit. It’s simply a matter of understanding the rules.”
His cocky grin is back. “I’m not a fan of rules.”
“And look where that’s gotten you.” The words are out of my mouth before I realize I’m saying them. My eyes widen in horror. “I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”
He shakes his head, his expression changing again. Tucker’s face is a chameleon of emotions. “No.” His gaze narrows. “I need that.”
“What? Snarky remarks?”
“No. The truth.”