Authors: Sophie Jordan
I closed the door on him and walked to the front door of my dorm. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and ignored that small thread of sensation running through me that felt an awful lot like regret.
The suite was empty.
Not a surprise, but I checked both rooms anyway just to be sure. Pepper had a fabulous new boyfriend. Ever since they’d gotten together she spent most nights at his place. And Georgia had Harris. Not a fabulous boyfriend, in my opinion, but a boyfriend nonetheless.
For once I was glad they weren’t around and I didn’t have to explain where I’d spent the night. I loved them, but they tended to worry about me. They would love nothing more than me putting my wild streak to rest and getting a boyfriend.
Stripping off my clothes, I slid on my robe and grabbed my shower caddy and headed across the hall to the shower, trying not to shudder at the idea of a boyfriend. Boyfriends kind of wanted you to let them in. Among other things. And that so wasn’t happening.
I spent at least half an hour under the hot spray of water before washing my hair and body. I kept thinking about last night. And this morning. Waking in Shaw’s bed. Despite his bad-boy edge, he hadn’t made a move on me. Sure, the invitation had been there when I’d practically straddled him and licked him like candy the night before, but he hadn’t jumped my bones. He hadn’t pushed for more or tried to manipulate the drunk girl. And this morning . . . this morning he just wanted to get rid of me.
Turning off the water, I shook my head and reminded myself not to be offended. It wasn’t like I wanted him.
After drying off, I reached for my robe and slipped it on. The shower rings screeched as I pulled back the curtain. Suzanne stood in front of the mirror brushing her teeth.
“Hey, you!” she mumbled around a mouthful of toothpaste.
“Hey. How was your date?” Rolling her eyes, she bent her head and spit in the sink. “Fine until his ex-girlfriend walked into the place with her new boyfriend and then he couldn’t stop staring at them all through dinner. Turns out he took me to her favorite restaurant. Nice, right?”
I winced as I inched toward the door. “What a dick.”
She nodded. “ I would have had more fun going out with you.”
“I’ll remind you of that the next time you ditch me for a date,” I called, halfway through the door.
“Hey!” she called out defensively. “I’d understand if you canceled your plans for a date.”
I snorted. “And why would I ever do that?”
“Oh, someday you will. I just know it! When you meet Mr. Right.” Her words rang out as I headed into the hall.
Suzanne read too many romance novels. She was started to believe in them. Shaking my head, I entered my room and made quick work of getting dressed. I dried my hair so icicles wouldn’t form when I stepped outside, already knowing exactly where I was headed this morning.
Hair dried and minimally styled, I applied light makeup and pulled on my heavy coat. Tossing a thick scarf around my neck, I slipped on my Uggs.
It was still early enough that not too many people were up and about. I made a beeline across campus for the Java Hut, hoping the caffeine would help my aching head. My stomach grumbled the instant I entered the popular campus coffee shop. It was practically impossible to get a seat during the week. At the moment the line was relatively short, only two people in front of me. Sorority girls from the looks of them and the Greek letters emblazoned on their butts.
One of the baristas spotted me. “Hey, Emerson!”
He was familiar. I think I fooled around with him at a party last semester.
“Hey!” My gaze flicked to his name badge. “Jeff.”
He grabbed a cup from the stack. Pen in hand, he scribbled my name on the cup. “What do you have?”
The girls in front of me shot me a not-so-nice look, clearly not appreciating my drink order coming before theirs.
The cashier shot them an apologetic look and started to punch the keys until Jeff stalled her with a hand on her arm. “I got this,” he murmured while sending me a wink.
The cashier shook her head and turned to the two sorority girls. “What can I get for you?”
With a last withering glare for me, they stepped up and ordered.
I smiled weakly at Jeff. “You didn’t have to do that.” Really, I wished that he hadn’t.
“I wanted to.” He shrugged. “Small perk of the job. Buying a drink for a cute girl.”
“Thanks,” I said, because at this point it would cause more of a scene to resist.
“So how’ve you been? You have a good holiday?” he asked as he began frothing milk for my drink.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Awesome. Went skiing. My uncle just bought a place in Vermont. Only a few hours from here. Let’s me use it anytime. You ski? You should come with me one weekend before the snow melts. There’s a hot tub.” He lifted his eyebrows suggestively and I knew just what he was imagining we could do in that hot tub.
“Cool. You still got my number?”
Had I ever had it?
“Well, don’t be afraid to use it.” He sealed the lid on my cup, and leaned across the counter toward me, bracing his hands on the marble. “You didn’t call me back when I called you last time.”
I accepted the cup, fidgeting with the edge of the cardboard sleeve uncomfortably, unsure how to respond. Most guys were happy with a fling. Sometimes they called, but they never cornered me about it like this when I didn’t call them back.
He winked and held up both hands. “Hey, it’s cool. I’ll call you later.”
I smiled and nodded like that would be good. “Thanks for the drink.”
Turning, I walked across the wood floor, sipping from my steaming cup. I’d meant to order a muffin, too, but no way was I turning around for another dose of awkward.
Stepping outside, I tugged my soft scarf high against my chin and turned in the direction of the art building.
Looking up, I watched as Georgia trotted across the street, tugging Harris after her.
“Hey,” I greeted her.
“Hi,” she replied in her sultry Alabama accent, cheeks flushed from the cold. “What’s up? Where you headed?”
“I’m going to work in the studio.”
She nodded. “What’d you end up doing last night?”
I hesitated. Now would be the moment to tell her that Annie ditched me, but then that would lead to the topic of how I got home . . . and where I spent the night.
I settled for: “Went out with Annie.”
Georgia pulled a face, revealing just how little she thought of Annie.
“Bet ya’ll had fun.” Harris looked me up and down, his lip curling ever so slightly, and I wanted to kick him. I knew he thought I was a slut. Annie, too. I could read his dirty thoughts as he considered me. He was probably picturing Annie and me taking on half the football team or something. Judgy little bastard. I didn’t get why Georgia didn’t see it. I guess she was blinded by the fact that they’d been together since her sophomore year of high school. I knew his type though. He was happy to keep his pretty girlfriend, but he was always looking at other girls . . . leering at me. I had no evidence of him cheating, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t enjoy the offerings to be had at one of his fraternity parties when Georgia wasn’t around.
Georgia buried her hands in her front coat pockets and rocked on her heels. “Well, what are you doing tonight?”
I shrugged. “No plans yet.”
“Pepper mentioned a party.”
“We have that dinner party, Georgia, remember?” Harris reminded her.
She angled her head, frowning. “No.”
“At the home of my dad’s friend. The president of First National Bank, remember? I’m hoping to intern there.”
“Oh.” Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. One look at her face and I knew she wasn’t interested in going.
“I can go alone, but I told you about it a month ago, Georgia.” He paused, letting that sink in. “They’re expecting me to bring a date.”
She nodded. “No, of course. I’ll go. I said I would.”
I took a long sip of my cappuccino, further committed to the idea of staying single as I observed their little byplay. I wondered how much longer Georgia could tolerate him, and then reminded myself it had already been four years. Some habits were hard to break—including, it seemed, a sucky relationship.
Georgia looked back at me. “Well, sorry, but maybe you can go to that party with Pepper and Reece.”
I shrugged. “Yeah. Maybe.” It could be fun. Pepper and Reece didn’t do too many parties. Most of their time consisted of staring into each other’s eyes and other activities that I wasn’t privy to—rightfully so.
“C’mon, Georgia. It’s cold. I’m going in.” Harris let go of her hand and entered the Java Hut. I watched Georgia as she stared after him. She looked troubled. The smooth skin of her forehead creased.
“You two okay?” I murmured.
She snapped her attention back to me. “Yeah. Sorry about that.”
About what? That her boyfriend was an ass hat? I shrugged like it was no big deal. It wasn’t my place to tell her who she should and shouldn’t date. I’d tried that once with my own mother and it didn’t go over too well.
“Harris is just stressed. He’s got a big test coming up. And he’s looking for an internship for the summer.”
I nodded like I understood.
“Want to go to breakfast tomorrow? It’s been a while. We’ll get Pepper to join us, too.”
It had been a while since the three of us had one of our breakfasts. I missed those mornings. Maybe I’d even tell them about Mom pressuring me to attend Justin’s wedding.
But then you’d have to tell them about Justin
. I mentally shuddered at that idea. I didn’t want to think about my prick of a stepbrother much less talk about him. Some things were better buried in the past.
“Yeah. That would be great.”
She gave me a quick hug and disappeared inside the Hut. I set a brisk pace across campus, eager to get to the studio and lose myself on the canvas . . . the only place where it felt safe to let emotion run free. Where I could let myself lose control.
UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE
lost track of
time as I worked. A few other students worked in the studio, intent over their projects, but silence was an unspoken rule in this place. It was a large room. Larger than any classroom save for maybe the few stadium-style ones on campus. Floor to ceiling windows allowed natural light to pour in. Every once in a while I would glance up and gaze out at the lawn of flawless white, tapping the end of my brush idly against my chin as I soaked up the serene sight, letting it feed my soul.
The studio was my church. A holy sanctum. Wild Emerson who guys only saw as a toy to play with for as long as I would allow it didn’t exist here. The wrecked fifteen-year-old who went to her mother expecting help and support? She didn’t exist either.
It was just me here. Where I could be real. It was freedom. Peace. On the canvas there was no threat, no risk in letting myself go.
I dipped my brush in various colors, mixing and blending until achieving just the right shade of blue. I worked the colors on my canvas, not even thinking, just going with it. Flowing. Being.
It was always like this. I never deliberated. I just did. Whenever I sat back to observe the end result, it was almost like I was seeing it for the first time.
My phone hummed on my workstation, beside me. Blinking, I looked up and noticed long shadows creeping in from outside. Looking down, I read the text:
Where r u?
Setting down my brush, I wiped my hands on a well-used towel and picked up the phone to type back.
Wanna go out? Party tonight.
For a moment, I hesitated and actually contemplated saying no. But then I’d be stuck in my room all night, alone. Even though I could study for my upcoming art history exam, I didn’t relish that.
Sure. On way to room.
Standing up, I gathered my brushes and palette. I walked to the sinks in the back of the room and rinsed everything off. Once my supplies were clean, I took them back to my station. Untying my smock, I lifted my gaze to my canvas and froze.
I had been vaguely aware that I was creating something inspired from the winter wonderland currently going on outside, but this was totally unexpected.
The scene was plucked straight from this morning. A glass-paneled door that looked out at a snow-covered world and cerulean blue sky. Just the hint of a bed with rumpled blue sheets.
Clean lines. Bright colors. Very modern in theory. My heart was in this, which only made me wonder why I would have painted this scene. What was I telling myself?
The only thing more shocking would have been a portrait of Shaw himself. Clearly he was still on my brain. Standing back and observing the canvas, I shook my head. Maybe I’d prime over it. Start over. Use the canvas for something else.
I glanced down at my phone. It was almost six. My stomach twisted and growled. I pressed a hand against my belly, certain it was devouring itself. A painful reminder that I hadn’t eaten all day. Slipping on my coat and wrapping a scarf around my neck, I nodded at Gretchen a few stations down working on an elaborate collage. She worked with a lot of textiles. She paused amid ripping up what looked like old curtains to wave good-bye to me.
I hurried from the building and across campus, burrowing into my coat as my boots crunched over the snow-packed ground. It felt like the temperature had dropped ten degrees from this morning.
When I entered my room, it was dark and empty. Georgia was already gone, but I could hear Pepper’s and Reece’s voices floating from the other side of the suite. Our adjoining door was partially cracked so they probably weren’t making out in there. Still, I knocked once before peeking inside.
“Hey!” Pepper grinned brightly, untangling herself from Reece’s arms. He sat in her chair, looking his usual hot self. Dark blond hair cut close to his head. His body lean and hard as he lounged there all relaxed looking, totally at home in Pepper’s room. Tattoos crawled out from beneath one of his short sleeves and down his toned bicep.
The guy actually looked pouty when she left him to approach me. Like he wanted nothing more to haul her back in his arms.
She snatched two sweaters off the bed and displayed them. “Which?”
I assessed and pointed at one. “The black one.”
“You think?” She stared critically at the black cashmere.
“Yes. Looks great on you.” I waved hello at Reece. “Hey, Reece.”
He smiled at me. “Hey, Em.” Unlike Harris, he never made me feel like a second-class citizen. And he never leered. At me or any other girls. Except Pepper, of course. The guy was genuinely nice.
“What’s the plan?” I asked. “I hope it involves food. I’m about to pass out.”
She frowned at me. “Have you been painting all day?” She reached for my cheek and wiped at what I guessed was a smudge of paint. “Did you even stop to eat?”
“Why don’t I run out and get us a pizza while you two get ready?” Reece rose from the chair. “I know how long it’s gonna take you guys.”
“Good idea.” Pepper nodded and said almost coyly, “Gino’s?”
He reached for the hem of her sweater and tugged her closer. “Would I ever get pizza anywhere else?”
He dipped his head to kiss her.
I looked away, not much into voyeurism. Gah. If I didn’t love them so much I might puke.
“I’ll call it in as I head over. Be back in half an hour.” The door clicked shut after him and Pepper just stood there hugging her sweater to her chest and looking so in love I wanted to both hug and kick her.
“Earth to Pepper.”
She looked back at me still wearing that silly grin. “Sorry.”
“No. You’re not.” Smiling, I shook my head. “Staring at you two, I almost have hope.”
She dropped down on the bed. “That you’ll meet someone? Of course you will. When you meet the right person. When you’re ready.”
And there was the heart of the matter.
When I was ready
. She didn’t understand that I never would be. How could she understand? I had never explained it to her and I wasn’t about to start now. Talk about dragging down the evening.
I dropped on the bed beside her. “So where are we going?”
“Well, one of Reece’s friends is having an engagement party.”
I groaned. “An engagement party?” Were people our age actually already starting to get married? Every time I turned around I was hearing about engagement parties and weddings. It was the beginning of the end. I couldn’t even contemplate it. Soon I’d be spending my weekends attending bridal showers. And then baby showers. Shoot me. “That sounds . . . fun.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “Well, don’t sound too excited.”
This talk of weddings made me think back to my phone call with Mom. I’d already missed the bridal shower for Justin’s fiancée. It was a week ago. I didn’t even know the poor girl Justin was marrying, but Mom made sure I got an invitation. I missed it. Just like I was going to miss the wedding. This party tonight already felt like a bad idea. It was making me think of Mom and Justin way too much.
I grabbed an extra pillow and propped it behind my head. “Isn’t there something more fun to do? You know. Like attend a funeral wake?”
She swatted my arm. “It’ll be fun, Em. There’s supposed to be a band.” I must have still looked unconvinced because Pepper added, “It’s not like an actual wedding or anything. No four-string quartet. It’s at a house. Should be pretty casual.”
“Okay,” I reluctantly agreed.
I pushed up from the bed and waggled my eyebrows. “Guess I better take a shower. Never know. I might meet someone worthy of a hookup.”
Pepper shook her head. “You’re so bad.”
“I know,” I called over my shoulder, suddenly feeling a little more like myself as I stopped in front of my closet, determined to find the perfect outfit for a night out.
The house was jam-packed
by the time we arrived. For an engagement party, it had to be mostly friends of the bride and groom because everyone was relatively young. No parents or grandmothers looked on from a buffet table loaded with casseroles. Furniture had been removed or pushed against the walls. A band was set up in the living room. Guests milled throughout the house and spilled outside onto the back porch. Several heat lamps were scattered across the covered porch, warding off the worst of the cold. These were locals. Friends Reece had grown up with. Salt of the earth types. They weren’t the Dartford college crowd, and I tugged self-consciously on my diamond earrings, wishing I had left them at home. And maybe my designer jeans, too. I stood out where Pepper and Reece blended in.
Reece led us through the party, searching for the happy couple. When he found them, he introduced Pepper and me.
“Reece, she’s adorable!” Beth, the bride to be, a girl he went to high school with, exclaimed. She squeezed Pepper’s hand. “Maybe we’ll be getting an engagement announcement from you next, huh?”
I looked away, acting interested in the crowd. What was it with happily married (or soon to be married) people wanting you to join their ranks? There must be some kind of secret recruiting agreement.
The bride and groom soon moved off to greet other guests and accept well wishes. Reece left us in the living room to get drinks from the makeshift bar in the kitchen.
“Not bad, huh?” Pepper called over the music, looking around. “There are some cute guys here.”
I nodded. “Yeah.” She was right. Several even tried to catch my eye as I looked around. For some reason I wasn’t feeling it tonight. Which was a shame since my hair was actually doing what I wanted it to do.
“Uh-oh, but watch out for this one. He’s trouble.” I followed the direction of Pepper’s gaze. A guy so hot he could be on the cover of
was making a beeline for us. He swept in and grabbed Pepper around the waist. She squealed as he swung her around.
“Logan!” She punched him in the chest. “Put me down!”
“I can’t help myself. You’re always with that asshat boyfriend of yours. I see my chance and I gotta take it.”
“Isn’t that asshat your brother?” I asked dryly.
Logan turned his hundred-watt smile on me. “Emmmerson.” He released Pepper and stepped closer to me. “You’re looking . . .” He paused and I waited for the cheesy line. I’m sure he used them, but it didn’t matter. He was so hot he could say whatever he wanted to to girls and they threw their panties at him anyway. It didn’t matter that he was eighteen and still had a few months left of high school. The guy had college girls chasing him.
“I’m looking what?” I prodded.
“Conveniently alone tonight.”
“Yeah. Convenient for me. You’re usually surrounded whenever I spot you. What’s up with all these losers?” He motioned out to the room. “They haven’t closed ranks around you yet? Their loss.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. He was good. Funny. Not just hot but in possession of an actual personality, too. I should have expected as much. He was Reece’s brother, after all. There had to be more to him than looks.
“So how about it, Emerson?” He draped a nicely muscled arm over my shoulder. Impossible not to notice that. The guy was ripped. An athlete through and through. I think Reece had said Logan had a bunch of college baseball scouts after him. “Are you going to finally give me the time of day?”
“Better watch out,” Pepper warned. “You’ll get eaten alive.”
“Hey.” Logan pressed a hand to his chest. “I’m hurt. I’m not that bad.”
“I’m not talking about you. I’m talking about Em. She’s a man-eater.”
“Thanks!” I swatted at her while jerking a thumb at Logan. “And what’s he?”
“Um, I’m going to go with not a man-eater,” Logan offered, nodding his head sagely.
“No. Just a man-hoe,” I retorted.
He pressed a hand over his heart. “Ouch.”
I propped one hand on my hip. “Am I seriously saying anything you don’t know?”
“I guess not, but does that mean you don’t want to make out?”
Pepper giggled, clearly enjoying herself too much. I mock-glared at her. “Need I remind you that last fall you wanted this guy to coach you on foreplay?”
“Emerson!” Her face turned bright red. “That was before I met Reece! And I thought Reece was Logan, too, remember?”
Logan was laughing now. “That story will never get old.”
Pepper crossed her arms and glared at him. “Yeah, your brother just loves it. Why don’t you tease him about that?”
“I’ll pass for tonight. Save that reminiscing for a special occasion like his birthday. Better yet, I’ll bring it up in the toast at your wedding some day.”
Pepper punched him in the arm.
I shook my head, grinning. He really was appealing in a carefree let’s-just-get-naked kind of way. Too bad he was Reece’s brother. He might be one-night-stand material, but he was off-limits. Even if he wasn’t Reece’s little brother, he was still in high school. That might not bother the majority of girls at Dartford, but I preferred my guys to be over eighteen.
The back of my neck suddenly prickled. The volume in the room took a sudden dip. The band played on, but the conversation seemed to have come to a stop. I looked around. Several people were turned, staring in the direction of the door.
The smile slipped off my face. Shaw was walking into the house.
Hot Biker Boy Shaw
I blinked, trying to reconcile the sight of him here. I’d been doing my best to forget about him and last night. Hard to do when less than twenty-four hours later he was right in front of me.
He looked relaxed, a mild smile fixed to his face as he nodded and shook hands with several people.
What was he doing here?
Even though he carried himself confidently, with a wisp of a smile on his lips, something told me he didn’t want to be here. It was in his eyes. There was a certain guarded edge to the dark depths.
“Well, look at that,” Logan murmured.