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Authors: Brooke Cumberland

Tags: #new adult, #Romance

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BOOK: Pushing the Limits
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My heart is pounding in my chest, and I can barely catch my breath. I need to find a bathroom and fast before I have a complete anxiety attack in front of everyone.

As soon as I push the door open, I race to the sink and splash water on my face. I place my hands flat on the counter and slouch down, regaining my focus. I breathe slowly through my nose and exhale out through my mouth several times before the tightness in my chest starts to ease. Several moments later, my heart rate evens out and I’m over the worst.

I hear the door crack open, and I immediately jump upright. “Ms. Evans?”

Oh my God
. It’s Professor Hampton.

“Yes?”

“Are you all right?”

“Uh, yes. I just needed a moment.”

I hear the door open wider, and soon, his entire body is within view. “Are you feeling ill?”

I clear my throat and wipe my face. “No.”

“You ran out like you were going to be sick. So…I just wanted to make sure.”

“Oh…no. Just your typical anxiety attack.” I try and shrug it off with a pathetic laugh, but his soft eyes turn intense as he continues to stare at me. “I’ll be fine. I’m already feeling better,” I lie with a fake smile, trying to make light of the situation.

He pauses a moment before responding, “Take your time. Come back when you’re ready.” I nod in return and watch as he walks out.

If I was embarrassed before I knew he was my professor, now I’m completely mortified. I hate when people see this side of me. It makes me look vulnerable, which makes them pity me. I don’t like anyone knowing this secret of mine, but especially someone I want to impress with my art skills.

I collect myself and head back into the classroom where students are chatting in their groups already. I stagger a moment, wondering which group I’m supposed to be in. Ellie eyes me and then moves them to Professor Hampton. Her lips spread into a wide grin, and I roll my eyes at her ridiculous assumption.

“Aspen…” His smooth voice catches my attention to the front where he’s leaning up against his desk. “You’re in group two, over there.” He nods his head in their direction and flashes me a small concerned smile.

I walk over to a group with four other students. They give me the handout with a list of conversation questions.

“What are these for?” I ask softly.

“He wants us to get to know each other on a more personal level,” one of the guys answers, adding in quotes around personal.

“He thinks it’ll make us more comfortable to be creative during class,” Lauren adds with a much better explanation. I grab the sheet and read over the questions. I hate this part of school. I don’t understand why teachers always want us to share so much all the time. It’s like they think we all need to be friends, but in doing so, it feels like I’m being forced to reveal things I never would under normal circumstances. It’s like exposing layers of ourselves we aren’t ready to give up yet, layers we intentionally keep up.

“Name your favorite memory,” the same guy reads from the sheet. He answers right away. “My favorite memory is when my family all flew to Florida from Ohio, and I swam in the ocean for the first time. I was thirteen and it was the best vacation we’d ever had.”

Next to him, Lauren gives her response. “Mine would be when I won an art contest in high school. I went all the way to state and won first place. I remember how proud my parents were and it was really the first time they accepted that I was going to make art my career.”

The other guy in our group tells us his, and then they all look at me, waiting for my answer. I swallow, trying to think of something. “Um…” I try to clear my throat, mentally preparing myself to share intimate details of my past. My birthday had always been my favorite day before the incident, but the last six years I hadn’t brought myself to celebrate it.

“That’s okay, we can go to another one until you think of something,” Lauren cuts into my thoughts. I smile in thanks back, relieved I didn’t have to give a response.

We continue the rest of the questions. There’s five total, but with five people, it took us a half hour to get through. I’m able to answer the other four questions, as they were all quite basic, but no one mentions the first one I missed, so I definitely don’t bring it up.

Once all the groups are finished, Professor Hampton directs us back to our seats.

“Before we begin the very first assignment, I have a short exercise. I want you to draw or paint one of your answers from the questionnaire. Make it brief, it’s only a draft. But do the best you can.” He looks up at the clock on the wall and continues, “I’ll give you about thirty minutes and then we have to move on.”

Students immediately fly out of their chairs to grab the easels and sort through their supplies. Soon we’re all back in our half circle, silently working. I prefer to work standing up, so I move my chair back and get into position.

The peace and quiet only broken up by soft chatter is comforting and reminds me of all the times in high school I’d draw for hours in silence. My thoughts would stay focused on the paper, making me feel free to create whatever I wanted.

I decide to do the one I never answered—my favorite memory.

Which also happens to be my worst memory.

I start the outline of the tree’s trunk and then move upward to the branches. I add in some shading and little twig pieces. Since this is a brief assignment, I can’t get too detailed. I attach some leaves, knowing in mid-April the trees weren’t entirely blossomed yet in Illinois. I extend the branch Ariel and I always sat on or hung from. It was the thickest and sturdiest on the tree. Thinking back to it now, I’m actually surprised it held the both of us from all the climbing, hanging, and bouncing around on it.

She loved challenging herself to climb higher and higher. She was always fearless. That was what I loved about her. She made me feel brave enough to take risks, to try new things. Now I felt more scared than ever.

As I’m tilting my head, shading in the rest of the tree trunk, I feel cold air blow past me. Goose bumps rise on my skin, making a shiver ripple through me. I feel his presence behind me before I see or hear him. I know he’s behind me, watching my every move. It feels intimate, the way he’s silently studying me. I slowly turn my head and shift my eyes down to his feet.

“Don’t stop,” he says sincerely. “I’m enjoying watching you.”

“Being watched makes me nervous,” I admit.

“Just pretend I’m not here.” I hear the humor in his tone, but I keep the smile from forming on my face.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” I whisper softly. Not a guy like him anyway. My body shivers, heat centering right in between my thighs as I feel how close he is to me.

“That’s a shame. You have a beautiful craft.” My eyes move up his body and land on his eyes. He’s watching me intently, his lips in a crooked, satisfying smile.

“Thank you.”

“I mean it. The way your eyes glide over the paper as your hand moves is a perfect blend of focus and creativity. I can see the thoughts running through your head as your body takes the lead.”

His words are so honest that I’m not even sure how to respond. My lips form a small, pleased smile. “Years of practice.” I shrug casually. “I preferred to draw alone for a really long time,” I explain without giving away too much.

“And now?” he prompts, his voice somehow smooth and rough at the same time.

“Now…I’m still getting used to an audience, I suppose. But it’s getting easier and easier with each class I have.”

“That’s good to hear. I’ve seen some of your portfolios from your other classes. You have a lot of talent, Aspen.” My body hums at the way his voice sounds when he says my name—deep,
hoarse
.

I swallow, trying to hide the anxiousness and fear that he’s seen my other drawings before. Painting is very personal for me and even though it’s meant to be shared with the world, I tend to be over-critical of myself. Most of them are somber, intense pieces. Even the brighter colored ones have a darkness surrounding them.

“Thank you.”

“You have a unique style. I’m looking forward to seeing what you create this semester.”

I rub my teeth along my lower lip, sucking it in as I stare intently at him. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you teach this semester.” His lips curl up into a satisfying grin as he shoves his hands in his pockets and begins walking toward the next student.

I turn back around and continue working, my heart pounding rapidly in my chest. I associate drawing and art with many things, but most significantly, Ariel. Every time I get my head into a creative mindset, my heart goes with it.

 

 

MORGAN

 

I never should’ve sat down next to her, but once I saw her, I couldn’t help myself.

I recognized her facial profile the moment I walked into the classroom from the few self-portraits I studied in her portfolio. So detailed, so emotional.

I had only meant to introduce myself and get a few minutes alone with her to discuss the pieces in her portfolio. However, that plan derailed as soon as her friend sat down next to her.

The moment I hear the sweet hum of her laughter, I’m even more intrigued than before. For someone who draws such passionate pieces, I assumed she’d be covered in black clothing, wear heavy eyeliner, and be plastered with a permanent scowl on her face. But she’s nothing like that at all. In fact, she’s the complete opposite.

Her laughter is infectious. Her golden blonde hair lies in loose waves against her shoulders, and I can’t help but notice how tight her purple shirt hugs her breasts and waistline. I lower my eyes and smirk at the leopard print fuck-me heels she’s wearing with her dark skinny jeans.

Not what I imagined at all.

The moment I hear the girl next to her call me a hot piece of ass, I nearly choke on my tongue. She finally turns and we make eye contact, but it doesn’t last for long before her friend continues with her inappropriate string of comments. I smile and laugh in return at her antics.

Aspen confesses that she’s thrilled about class and for some reason it makes me weirdly giddy inside.

Fuck.

Scratch that last part. I haven’t felt giddy in over five years, not since I’ve lived in this god-forsaken state.

However, the tinge of panic doesn’t go unnoticed as I see Aspen’s expression as I stand up and walk to the front of the classroom. Her eyes go wide and cheeks flush pink. A small part of me feels guilty she’s so embarrassed, but I find it freaking adorable. Ellie’s whispering in her ear and Aspen looks like she’s about to die.

I really should leave the poor girl alone. Clearly she’s not a social person, but I just can’t help myself.

“Aspen Evans…” I call out because I want an excuse to look at her again. And hear her voice.

That voice.

It’s so small and smooth that I’m afraid she’d float up to the ceiling if her six-inch heels weren’t weighing her down. I hadn’t expected her to stand up, but she does. I should tell her we don’t have to be so formal in this class, but I can’t deny getting the opportunity to get a better look at her.

Once introductions are over, I hand out the syllabus and repeat my typical mantra. Look over the syllabus carefully. Don’t skip my class. Don’t be a lazy participator.

I make sure to look around at all the students so I don’t get caught staring at her. Although that’s where my eyes are directed since Ellie’s once again whispering over to Aspen.

“Do you have a question, ladies?” I really don’t appreciate students talking when I’m talking, so I make sure I’m firm just so the rest of the class knows I’m not to be taken advantage of.

Ellie’s quick-witted response takes me off guard, and I really have to fight to hide the smile that wants to spread wide across my face.

I need a second to breathe, so I put the students in groups for their first exercise. I start numbering students off into groups of five, but when I come across Aspen’s seat, she’s gone. I look around and catch her just as she’s running out the door.

I finish grouping everyone and hand out the worksheet I want them to start on. I wait a few minutes to see if she returns but worry I’ve embarrassed her. When she doesn’t return, I decide to go after her.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected to see when I found Aspen, but it wasn’t this. I know an anxiety attack when I see one. I’ve experienced them myself, but she’s…she’s a mess. It seems unfair that such a beautiful and talented woman has to suffer this way. From the outside, I never would’ve guessed she held this kind of pain.

I don’t believe her in the least when she says she’ll be fine. I want to comfort her, wrap my arms around her so she doesn’t have to handle it alone. But I barely know her and it’d be highly inappropriate given I’m her professor. I tell her to take her time and wait anxiously in the classroom for her to come back.

When the groups finishes, and everyone is seated again, I discuss what I want them to do next. Although I was able to look at their portfolios beforehand, I want to see how well they each do with a shortly timed assignment. They all grab their supplies and sit back in their seats except Aspen. She stays standing.

It’s hard to not notice her as it is, but now I’m able to watch her while she draws. She moves her hand so effortlessly as her eyes follow every stroke her pencil is making. I walk around the classroom silently watching, but I stop just behind her as she begins to shade in her outline of a tree trunk. I can’t tell which number from the questionnaire she’s drawing from, but just the intensity of her focus tells me how important it is to her.

BOOK: Pushing the Limits
7.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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