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Authors: Brooke Cumberland

Tags: #new adult, #Romance

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BOOK: Pushing the Limits
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“Kendall,” I say with a sharp edge in my tone and grit my teeth. “This is Morgan, Ms. Jones’ nephew.” I widen my eyes at her so she stops undressing him with her eyes. “He’s also my Advanced Art professor twice a week.”

“Oh!” She stands up straighter as if that changes everything. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She extends her hand to shake his, and I have to fight back a laugh at how formal she’s acting.

He takes her hand in his and shakes it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, as well.”

“Kendall lives down the hall from me and goes to CSLA, too,” I explain. “And she works here.” I nod awkwardly before adding, “Apparently, she can’t get enough of me.”

He laughs and then the three of us continue standing there in uncomfortable silence.

“Well, I better get going. I only have a few minutes of my break left.” Kendall gives me a wide-eyed look that I know translates into an ‘
oh my god’
and ‘
you better tell me everything later,’
and then waves to Morgan. “Nice meeting you!” Once she’s out of view, I close my eyes and sigh.

“She seems nice,” Morgan draws out.

I burst out laughing at his attempt to break the tension. “Yeah, she is. Obnoxious and loud at times, but she’s a good friend.”

He turns back toward the pieces we were just looking at. “So why aren’t any of your pieces in here? I’m sure Aunt Mel would give you a prime spot.” I can hear the sincerity in his tone, which I can’t blame him, considering I work here and most people would jump at the opportunity, but I could never explain my real reason for keeping them to myself.

“I’m a little more reserved when it comes to showing off my work.”

“It’d be great exposure and look great on grad school applications. Not to mention, your pieces are one-of-a-kind. I’m sure people would love them. You wouldn’t have to tell people they’re yours during your tours, but at least you’d get to see their expressions when they look.”

I purse my lips together, swallowing down the guilt and pain from keeping the secret of my sister’s death. “Maybe. I’ll think about it.”

He smiles in return, content with my answer for now. It’s a complete lie, but at least it’ll keep him from asking more questions.

We continue the tour, looking through the rest of the exhibits. By the time we round back to the where we first started, I’m starving.

“Thank you,” he says genuinely, facing me and almost blocking me in near the staircase.

“Sure.”

“No, I mean it. You’re a really great guide. Entertaining even.” His lips crack into a smile, a small rumble of laughter escapes his throat as we face each other chest to chest.

“Well, I’m glad to have thoroughly entertained you then.”

“So have you thought about it yet?” He lifts his brows and my heart beats faster.

“Thought about what?”

“Putting some of your pieces in the student section here?”

I bite the inside of my cheek, covering up the anxiety that’s brewing inside. “You mean since you asked me thirty minutes ago?” A sly smile forms on my face at his eagerness.

“Yes. Figured it couldn’t hurt to ask again.” His flirty tone makes it hard to stay sincere, but I won’t let that part of my life slip out.

“No, I don’t think so. Not really my thing.” I try and brush it off, but I see the questions spinning around in his mind.

It’s not a complete lie. I really don’t have any intention of putting my pieces out there as me.

“That’s a shame, Aspen. Like I said before, it would look impressive on your grad school applications.” He drawls out my name, seducing me with his eyes and voice, making it hard to remember that he’s off limits.

Remember that
I’m
supposed to be off limits.

“Oh, Aspen! Morgan!” We both turn at the sound of Ms. Jones’ voice. She grabs his arm and pulls him down, connecting her lips to his cheeks. “How was the tour?”

“It was great, Aunt Mel. Aspen really knows her stuff.” He looks back at me and winks. “It’s stunning.”

“Oh, I knew you’d love it! I’m so happy you moved back!” she squeals. “Look, I was just about to grab some lunch. Wanna join me?”

“Oh, um…sure.” He glances in my direction.

“I have another tour actually, so I better get going.” I take an awkward step back, distancing myself.

“Well, thank you so much for taking him around.”

“Anytime.” I smile and walk away, feeling like I should change my panties before my next tour.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

ASPEN

 

I try to block thoughts of Professor Hampton out of my head, but after seeing him at the gallery, it’s all I’ve been able to focus on. I end up walking into the wrong classroom for my Monday morning course and even lock myself out of my apartment. I called the landlord, but of course, he didn’t answer or return my calls. I decided to wait outside of Kendall and Zoe’s apartment until one of them gets home since we exchanged spare keys months ago. But even sitting and waiting in the hallway for one of them to show, he consumes my thoughts completely.

I know nothing good can come from this fascination I feel for him. This is the exact reason I keep my distance in the first place and get involved with guys that mean nothing to me, but he’s making it
really
hard to stay away.

If my past has taught me anything, it’s to not get attached. I don’t talk about my past or why I prefer to live alone. Kendall’s asked me a million times why I don’t have a roommate or why I don’t date exclusively. I just give her or anyone else that asks a vague explanation—
I prefer to paint and work alone, and I don’t need the distraction of a relationship right now.
It seems to work most of the time, but Kendall has tried to dig for more to which I just brush it off and change the subject. Although I have told her bits and pieces of my past, including parts of Ariel, it’s all she knows. No one besides me knows the whole story.

And if I’ve learned anything from this past week—guys are definitely a distraction.

Then today I got stuck staying later than usual for my shift at the gallery, and now I’m running so damn late for Professor Hampton’s class. Once I finally got off work, I ran home to grab my school bag and change clothes. However, I spent much more time than necessary trying to pick out an outfit.

 

 

After circling the parking lot searching for a spot and being unsuccessful, I give up and park on the street. I sigh and grab my bag just as it starts sprinkling out. It’s a longer walk, so I dig through my trunk for my umbrella, but it’s not in there.

Great
.

I look up and see the dark clouds moving in. I beg them not to rain just yet.
Just wait
,
I plead. I slam my trunk down and begin walking. I pull my sweater tighter against my chest and keep my head low.

I’m about half way there when the skies unleash, drenching me in a matter of seconds.
Son-of-a-bitch
. I try to walk faster, but it’s no use. I’m completely soaked.

I grab the railing to the staircase that leads to the LAB building. As soon as I take the first step, my heel slips against the wet cement, and I’m mere milliseconds from face planting.

An arm catches me from the side, wrapping around my waist and pulling me up before I can even comprehend someone is at my side. I notice the rain has stopped pouring over me, giving me the opportunity to stable myself. Once both feet are firmly on the ground, I inhale deeply, feeling relief.

“Are you okay?”

My eyes widen as I hear Professor Hampton’s voice next to me. I swallow and turn to face him. “Yes, thanks to you.” I try to sound casual, but the nerves in my voice make it impossible to look unaffected by him.

“You almost gave yourself a shiner there.” His lips curve into a sympathetic smile. “Let me walk with you.” He releases his grip on me, and I now notice he’s holding an umbrella over me.

“I swear I’m not always this jumpy and clumsy.” I lean into him as we walk up the rest of the steps, but he acts unaffected.

“You need to be closer,” he says, throwing me off guard. Before I can respond, he pulls me tighter to his side. “The umbrella isn’t wide enough,” he answers my unspoken question. I nod in return and keep my head down as he leads us into the building. His body feels warm against mine, his scent overpowering my senses.

“Thank you,” I say as soon as we’re inside and out of the rain. He shakes the umbrella off before closing it. “Oh, shit,” I gasp, taking a step closer to him and pressing my hand to his chest. “I got your suit jacket all wet.” I panic and begin brushing the water off but stop when his hand covers mine.

“It’s okay, Aspen.” His eyes stare intently into mine. “A little water won’t kill me.” His voice sounds so sincere and rough at the same time. How does he do that?

We stand there, staring at each other, unmoving. My stomach is somersaulting at the way his hand feels against mine. The way his eyes are looking at me, I can’t bring myself to break away.

The sound of the building door opening and closing breaks me out of my trance. I take a step back and remove my hand from his chest. I turn and see Professor Van Bergen staring suspiciously at us. She teaches art classes for freshmen and sophomores. I’ve had her as a teacher a few times as well. She’s in her mid-thirties, but the scowl that’s permanently etched on her face makes her look over fifty.

Professor Hampton clears his throat and shoves a hand in his pocket. “Claire,” he greets, nodding in her direction with a forced smile.

My breathing speeds up as I notice the intense stare she’s giving us. My mind starts spinning at what she must be assuming right now. My hand was on his chest, our bodies just inches apart.

After Saturday’s tour, I can’t deny the chemistry between us. I know he feels it too, but that doesn’t mean anything. He’s my professor. It would risk everything, and that’s why I must fight the urge to resist those irresistible dimples and charming smile. I normally have no problem keeping my emotions out of it, but he’s somehow managed to get inside my head just enough to make me second guess exactly what’s going on with my body and why it reacts to him this way.

“Morgan.” She nods and looks between us before adding, “Finally raining. The trees were starting to look like corpses.”

“Yeah, we definitely need it,” he responds politely, but I can no longer see the two of them. My eyes lower to the ground as everything becomes blurry and my heart thumps hard in my chest.

“Well, have a good night.”

“You as well.”

I hear the inner door open and the clacking of her heels as she walks down the hall.

“Are you all right?” Professor Hampton’s voice captures my attention again. “You look pale.”

I blink a few times before responding. “Yes, I just…I just need to sit down.” My knees feel weak, and I can feel the blood draining from my face.

“What’s wrong?” he quickly asks, watching me take a seat on the wet floor, not even caring that the rain from our shoes has brought water inside. “Are you ill?” he asks, repeating the same question he asked me in the bathroom that first night of class.

“No.” I shake my head and bring my knees to my chest. “I’ll be fine. I just need a minute to calm down.”

“Are you having an anxiety attack?” He kneels down in front of me.

“Feels like it,” I respond honestly. “I just need a minute. It’ll pass.”

“Do you get these a lot?”

“Sometimes…I mean, yeah, I guess. It just depends.”

“What can I do?” he asks in a rush, brushing a rough hand through his hair. “God, I feel so helpless.”

“Count with me,” I reply. “Sometimes that helps.”

He nods as I begin slowly counting, his husky voice a balm to my anxious mind. When we get to seven his warm palm is on my shoulder, his hand slowly tracking down to my elbow before he repeats the motion as we count down to one.

I inhale through my nose and slowly exhale through my mouth once more, feeling the tension ebb away.

His gentle caress continues as his brows rise. “Better?”

I smile and nod. “Yes, I think so.” I’m still trying to focus on my breathing, but with his body so close to mine, I can hardly focus on anything except envisioning what his lips would feel like pressed against mine. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He smiles. He reaches his hand out and waits until I place mine in it. “Do you know your triggers?” He pulls me up so we’re both standing again.

I want to ask why he cares so much, why he’s taking such an interest, but I don’t. That’d be rude, so I respond, “Yes, I have a list,” I say softly. “I’m quite aware of them.” My cheeks heat at the embarrassment of having another episode in front of him.

“Are they avoidable?” He opens the other door for me and waits until I pass through. “I mean, is there a way to bypass the triggers?”

This heavy conversation is making my head spin, so I decide to lighten it up and get the thoughts out of my mind. “Why do you think I come to art class twice a week?” I turn my head and smile back at him but quickly face forward again. The last thing I need to do is run into a wall or something.

That’d be the icing on the freaking cake.

 

 

Halfway through class, I’m starting to feel normal again. Ellie and I chat quietly as we work on our assignments.

“Damn, Aspen. That’s incredible,” she exclaims, peeking over my easel. “I love how detailed you are. It’s just so…” she hesitates, searching for the right word.

I smile as she praises me, feeling pretty good about myself before I hear a deep, familiar voice behind us. “Moving,” Professor Hampton fills in.

“Yes!” Ellie agrees. “It’s so moving. Absolutely.” I keep my face down to hide the blush that’s creeping up to my cheeks. Ellie smiles before grabbing her things to put away.

“Great work, Aspen.” I still don’t face him, hoping he can’t see the goose bumps on my arms and neck.

“Thank you,” I say softly.

“I’m starting to notice a theme,” he continues, not backing away like I wish he would. I realize most of the students have left now, leaving us alone once again. “This girl…she’s in a lot of your pieces.” I curse the fact that he’s seen my other projects before. I feel his hand against my lower back as he leans in and touches the drawing, rubbing the pad of his thumb along her jawline.  “She has strong features.”

“Yes,” I confirm. Although we looked alike, we had differences. I have a brown birthmark under my eye and she didn’t have one at all. I part my hair on the left side and she parted hers on the right. She had a mole on her jawline, and I have one on the right side of my neck, just under my ear.

He backs away just slightly, removing his hand, but now we’re shoulder to shoulder. “She’s my sister.” My heart aches the moment I tell him. I don’t talk about her, and I find myself really surprised I just admitted that to him.

“She’s an important person in your life…” he prompts, turning his body toward me.

I swallow, the genuine curiosity in his eyes make me feel comfortable enough to continue telling him a bit more. “She was,” I explain. “She passed away six years ago.”

“I’m so sorry.” His eyes soften. “It’s had a strong effect on you.”

I nod. “You could say that.”

“Keep it up. Whatever you’re feeling is feeding your ability to create. I’ve never seen someone concentrate so fully before.”
Was he watching me?
“I can see the way your eyes study the lines of your pencil and how it’s like an extension of your hand. You’re very talented.”

“That’s very nice of you to say, Professor Hampton. But I…I don’t like to talk about her. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.” He flashes a sincere smile my way. “I just wanted you to know, that’s all.”

“Thank you. I appreciate that.”

I hear his footsteps as he walks out of the classroom without another word. As I focus on the drawing, I think about her. I think about the empty darkness that lives inside me. I think about how different my life would be if she were still here. I think about how unfair it is that she isn’t experiencing college with me. I think about how much I hate her for dying. I hate that she’s not here with me. I hate that I hate her.

I hate everything.

On the surface, I’m a girl who uses art to express myself.

On the inside, I’m still lost and confused.

I’m drowning in my thoughts that I don’t even hear Professor Hampton walk back in. “Are you still here?” Professor Hampton’s voice comes from behind me, sending a pulsating ache right in between my legs.

“It appears that way,” I respond without looking in his direction. “The silence helps me think.”

I feel him step next to me, looking at the painting. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking…” I pause briefly. “…that I need more challenging assignments.” I laugh, turning to face him.

“I agree.” He smirks.

My eyes widen in surprise, and I laugh again. “I was
kidding
.”

“Well, I wasn’t.” He crosses his arms over his chest, showing off how tight his shirt looks against his biceps. “The most talented students usually need to be pushed out of their comfort zone the most.”

I grab the drawing in one hand and the easel in the other. As I’m walking in the other direction to put my things away, I say over my shoulder, “I think, Professor Hampton, that’s considered favoritism.”

“Technically, class is over. So I don’t think that counts,” he counters, his tone thick with amusement. I turn around and see a wicked grin spread across his face.

BOOK: Pushing the Limits
12.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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