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Authors: Brooke Cumberland

Tags: #new adult, #Romance

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BOOK: Pushing the Limits
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She tilts her head slightly and gives me a questioning look. “Where
did
you grow up?”

I realize this is something I don’t normally talk about with people. Even people I know. It’s just not something I like to bring up because it usually leads to other questions, which ultimately leads to me dodging them as much as I can.

“About two thousand miles to the east.” I grin, not willing to give her a clear answer.

“I know you aren’t married but are you seeing someone? Exclusively, I mean.” She cracks a smile. “I don’t even know if you have siblings or what your favorite color is.”

“That’s because I don’t feel the need to parade my life on social media.” I grimace. “And I don’t really talk about my personal life much.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because there’s nothing to talk about,” I lie. I shrug it off, hoping she’ll let it go. “My next tour coming soon or can I grab something to eat real quick?”

“Oh!” She snaps her fingers in the air. “They canceled, but Ms. Jones was looking for you.”

“All right. I’ll go find her.” I smile. “See ya later!” I call over my shoulder as I begin to walk away.

My mind wanders as I think what Ms. Jones would want to see me for. She’s in charge of the upcoming gala this spring, which means she’s been super busy lately. So I really only talk to her if I see her around.

I feel my phone buzz in my pocket as I start walking toward the stairs up to her office. I reach for it and read over the couple of missed messages. As I get closer to the staircase that leads up to Ms. Jones’ office and the employee’s lounge, I notice a guy’s silhouette standing near the edge of the steps.

“Are you lost?” I ask, trying to grab his attention.

I step closer just as he turns around and faces me.

Oh, fucking hell.

I nearly stop dead in my tracks as his eyes lock on mine. I try to get ahold of myself, but his deep, intense green eyes burn into mine, and I can’t look away.

“No,” he answers with a sly smirk.

The moment his eyes reach mine, I have to remind myself to breathe.

“Professor Hampton,” I say in surprise. “Didn’t realize it was you.”

“That’s okay. And please, you can call me Morgan.” He lays a hand on his chest. “We aren’t in the classroom, Aspen.”

I swallow, and I swear I see him wink at me. “Oh, right. Can I help you with anything?” I take a step and wonder if he’s heading up the staircase, too.

“I’m looking for my aunt. I think her office is up here.” He nods his head up the steps.

“Oh, who’s your aunt?” We start heading upstairs as I try my best to act unaffected by his good looks and charm.

“Melinda Jones.”

I nearly choke as I realize he’s Ms. Jones’—
my boss—
nephew.

“Oh, um…her office is upstairs to the left. I was just headed there, actually.”

“I had no idea you worked here,” he states as we climb the steps.

“Yeah, mostly on the weekends, but I fit in a couple shifts during the week when I can in between classes.”

“How do you like it?”

“Oh, I absolutely love it. I nearly work every day in the summer.”

“I bet you enjoy that.” His lips part, and I trip on the step in front of me. “You okay?”

“Fine,” I insist, quickly recovering by grabbing the railing. “Damn stairs came out of nowhere.”

He snorts. “They do that sometimes.”

I lower my head to hide the stupid grin on my face as we walk the short hallway to Ms. Jones office. I knock on the door, and seconds later, she whips it open and squeals as she sees Morgan next to me. “Finally!” She wraps her arms around him as best she can, but considering he’s well over six feet tall with a solid chest and arms, she actually struggles with getting her arms around him.

I stand awkwardly as I watch them, wondering if I should even be standing in the middle of it all. I glance at them as they break apart, her smile wide and excited. “I’m so glad we can see each other more often now that you’re living back home.”

“Me too.”

Back home?
I think to myself, wondering where he’s been and for how long, but I keep my mouth shut until Ms. Jones looks in my direction and finally acknowledges me. “Aspen! Great, you’re here. This is my nephew, Morgan. Morgan, this is…”

“Aspen.” I turn slightly and glance at him as he cuts her off. The way he says my name is so smooth and hoarse at the same time, which actually makes no sense at all, but somehow, it does.

“Oh, great! You’ve had a chance to meet.” Her eyes light up again. “I have a phone conference in about two minutes, so Aspen, be a dear and give Morgan the grand tour. I’d do it myself, but I can’t get out this godforsaken waste-of-my-time meeting.”

“Oh, okay,” I say breathlessly.

“She doesn’t have to, Aunt Mel. I mean—” He turns and glances at me. “I don’t want to be a burden.”

“Are you kidding?” She nearly gasps. “Aspen loves giving tours! And she’s the best at it.” She winks at me, and I secretly wonder if she knows something I don’t know.

I hadn’t even told Kendall about him. She knows I have a night course this semester, but I haven’t brought up the fact that I want to take the professor home and do very, very bad things to him. Bad and inappropriate things.

However, inappropriate just went up about ten notches.

“Yeah, it’s no problem. My group canceled, and I’m free for the next two hours.” I smile at Ms. Jones, avoiding eye contact with Morgan because I don’t want her to get suspicious.

“Sounds good.” He turns toward me and grins. “Lead the way.”

 

 

“Where would you like to start?” I ask as we walk back down the staircase.

“Hmm…what’s your favorite exhibit at the gallery?”

“That’d be the Fashion Faire.” I smile with a shrug. “I’m a sucker for historic fashion trends.”

“Really?” His eyes narrow suspiciously. “I would’ve pegged you as more of a Paris Fashion Week guru,” he says, lowering his eyes down to my flats that I wear at work, but I know he noticed my heels in class.

“Well…a girl can love both,” I say matter-of-factly, biting my lip to keep from smiling. “And I’m pretty concerned that you even know about fashion week.”

He flashes that deep-dimpled smile, and it takes all my willpower to look away to avoid the flutters that are sure to surface if he continues looking at me like that.

I take him through the exhibit and point out my favorites. I can tell he’s bored of my fashion vocabulary, so I breeze through them without making him suffer for long.

“Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t have started there,” I say, laughing.

“I’m really starting to doubt your tour guide skills, Aspen.”

I roll my eyes. “I haven’t had any complaints.”

“I bet not,” he murmurs so I almost don’t hear him.

“Well, since it’s been awhile since you’ve been here, you should see the local student exhibit. It’s a collaboration of the high schools and colleges around here.”

“Would love to.”

We walk side by side down the hall as I lead him toward the exhibit that’s on the other side of the gallery.

“So much has changed since I was here last.” His eyes gaze around, taking in all the new features that have been added and remodeled in the last few years.

“Oh, yeah? How long has it been?”

His features tense as he faces me. “Five years.”

“Wow…That’s a long time to be away from home.”

“Sometimes it feels like it’s been a long time. Other times it feels like it hasn’t been long at all.”

“I know exactly how that feels,” I say matter-of-factly. “I’ve been avoiding going back home ever since I left.”

His lips curl up slightly, showing off those impressive dimples again. “Sounds like we’ve both been running from home.”

I smile at the truth in his words, his voice so somber and hoarse. “I guess so.”

We step into the student section of the gallery, his eyes bouncing from wall to wall.

"Are those…Ariel Rose Collection paintings?” he asks, narrowing his eyes as he studies the three paintings on the wall.

"Yes." My heart skips a beat at the mention of her name. I called her Ari, but naming them the Ariel Rose Collection felt more like a tribute to her.  "How'd you know?"

He's still staring at them, mesmerized, as he takes a couple steps toward them. "She has a very distinctive style. Raw, dark, edgy.
Gothic
. The abstracts are so emotional, it’s impossible to not be affected by them.” He pauses a moment, collecting himself. “I would recognize her work anywhere." I'm stunned silent, feeling a little awkward at the fact that he knows
her work. Rather,
my
work. “She's a student?” He turns and asks.

"Uh, she was,” I stammer, nodding. “Couple years ago,” I lie. “You like that style?” I shouldn't ask questions, but I can’t help myself. Even though it’s the exact reason I use a pseudonym, I can’t fight the feeling of excitement beating in my chest at him being a fan of my work—especially since he has no idea it’s me.

He turns and looks at me. “Yeah, I actually have a couple of her paintings that I found at an online shop. I had no idea she was from around here though." He reaches back and rubs his hand on his neck, clearly surprised. I want to ask what he's thinking, why he's so intrigued by her, how he heard about her, but I stop myself before the words escape my throat.

“Yeah, I really like the different way she connects you to the pieces,” I add, trying to sound as casual as possible.

“It’s deep. But there’s a sense of vulnerability to it, too. It’s really breathtaking.”

My breath hitches, my eyes tearing up as I hear the passion and sincerity in his tone. The way he talks about the AR Collection is almost too much, but I swallow back the tears and hold it together.

“Yeah, they’re inspiring,” I say, edging away and hoping he follows me to another part of the exhibit.

“From what I’ve seen so far, Aspen, you have an extremely distinctive style to your pieces, as well.”

I look back at him, puzzled. My cheeks heat, and I hope to God he doesn’t recognize the similarities. “You’ve hardly seen any of my work.”

“Well, actually I have.” I raise a brow, intrigued. “I saw a partial of your portfolio before classes started. I wanted to know what kind of students I was getting, being that I was teaching at a new school and all. Not just anyone gets into the art program at CSLA. So once I saw a few of your pieces, I requested for the entire portfolio.” My legs halt in front of him, his intense eyes making it impossible to think straight.

“Why?”

“It’s not every day, or even every year I get a student like you.” His words take me by surprise. I blush, lowering my eyes to avoid his intense ones. I don’t talk about my work to many people. It’s deep and personal, and I prefer to keep it to myself.

“Like what?” I ask softly, unable to drop the subject. We slowly begin walking again, the gallery getting quieter and quieter as we walk to a more vacant area.

“You have similarities in all of your pieces. Almost like a trademark. You use bold and bright colors to accent a dark, painful image.”

He’s right, so I can’t even argue with him. When I paint for the AR Collection, I paint completely raw and free. No expectations. No boundaries. No pressure. But when I paint as me, I only paint the surface of my emotions. I don’t show the extent of the pain or guilt I suffer with inside. I don’t let anyone see that part of me, so I pour it into my AR paintings.

“In fact, when I first saw you, I almost didn’t believe the artist behind those paintings and the girl in my classroom were the same person.” I notice we’ve gotten closer somehow, almost touching.

My lips curl up slightly, intrigued. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you walked into my classroom with your curve-hugging shirts, tight, dark skinny jeans, and leopard print fuck-me heels. It’s not hard to miss considering none of my other students have ever shown up to class dressed like that.”

His eyes stay fixed on mine, so deep that it feels as if he’s looking into my soul. I can feel how hot my body is, heating more and more with every noticeable breath he takes.

I shrug, trying to act unaffected. “Perhaps I just have good fashion sense.”

“Perhaps.” He smirks. “Or perhaps it’s a cover up. You’re guarding what’s really inside with an outside distraction.”

My mouth tenses at how blunt and forward he’s being.
I distract him?
I don’t care how my body and heart reacts to him. I don’t give that part of me to anyone. “You don’t know anything about me.”

His stare remains intense. “I just might know more than you think.”

Before I can ask what he means by that, we’re interrupted by Kendall. “Oh, I didn’t know we were giving one-on-one tours now,” she teases with a flirty tone. We quickly part from each other, putting much-needed space between us to relieve the evident tension that’s there. “Not that I really blame you.” She gives him an obvious once-over and winks at me.

BOOK: Pushing the Limits
10.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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