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I'd never had a boyfriend. Never even been on a date. I didn't go to homecoming. Or prom. I'd never been to the movies with a guy. Or anywhere else alone with one, either, unless you counted my brothers and father, which I didn't. I was eighteen years old, almost a sophomore in college. And I'd never been kissed.
There you have it. Right up front. I wasn't one of the popular girls. I read books. All the time. In between classes. During study hall. After school, before dinner, after work and studying, before bed, I read. On weekends, I read. I went babysitting. And I read. Romances. Always romances. Harlequin romances.
I had one in my purse when I drove to Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, as a very determined, five–foot-two, 100-pound blonde who was certain I was ten feet tall and had strength equal to any challenge.
I started college with a lot to learn, but I knew very clearly what I wanted out of life. On that I didn't waver. At all. I had two goals. I was going to write for Harlequin. And, some day, I was going to find and marry my own Harlequin hero.
I was actually almost in my second year at Wright State because I'd done my first year attending part-time while still in my senior year of high school. I was in college because my father expected me to go to college, and I wanted to get it over as quickly as possible. I didn't argue with my father. Ever.
I was also in college because I absolutely adored learning. It was the writer in me. I could never know enough.
As I parked my new little blue Opel Manta, a month-old eighteenth birthday gift from my parents, in the student parking lot at Wright State University, I knew I was different from everyone else arriving for the first day of classes. I wasn't there to learn a career. I wasn't going to be a nurse or a teacher or anything else the education I was there to receive would provide for me. I'd happily get a degree, but, as a career, I was going to write romances for Harlequin Books. There was no Harlequin major in college. There wasn't a class that studied, or even mentioned, romance novels. There were writing classes, thoughmore if I majored in English. That semester, I'd signed up for the one writing class I was permitted to take. And I was taking literature, too. Fantasy. I was going to be reading Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I was going to learn from the greats.
And because an English major required a science classsomething else I'd managed to graduate high school withoutI took geology. Blood and guts weren't for me. They'd keep me up nights.
Rocks were innocuous. They'd put me to sleep just fine.
So there I was sitting in a geology lecture hall filled with a hundred strangers who were mostly my ageall of them having been kissed, I was certainduring my first full-time college semester.
Dressed in my favorite pair of faded, hip hugger bell bottom jeansthe ones that I'd cut from the ankle to just below the knee to insert the piece of white and blue flowered cotton fabricI might look like the other kids. But I wasn't like them. I gripped my pencil, my college-ruled paper blank before me, waiting to take notes.
I'd already decided I'd have to take notes to remain conscious.
I looked around. After having been in class with the same kids for four long years, I still felt a little weird being in a classroom where I didn't know a single soul. Weird and kind of free, too. No one knew I was Tara Gumser, daughter of the Wayne Township school-board president. Daughter of the Rotary Club president. Daughter of the best singer in the church choir. Daughter of the best bridge player in Huber Heights, Ohio. No one knew I hadn't been asked to my proms. Either of them. No one knew I'd never been asked on any kind of date. Ever.
The room buzzed with energy. Freshman energy. After all, life was just beginning. The future was more question than answerresting largely on the success or failure of the next four years in classrooms just like that one.
Did I stand out?
I didn't have to be there to obtain a future.
I had my future planned. I knew what I wanted and I wasn't going to be swayed.
It was the fall of 1977. I had my whole life before me . . .
I saw his hair first. I wasn't a hair person. I was very definitely an eye person. My one close high-school friend and I had talked about it. When I saw a guy, I always looked at his eyes first. And last, too. I didn't care about a man's outer image. Heroes weren't judged by their book covers. What I cared about was a man's heart. His soul. You could only get there through his eyes.
And there was this hair. I saw it walk in the door. Move toward the steps. Move up the steps. The rest of the room really did fade away, just like I'd read about in my books. I mean, the people were there. I still had peripheral vision. I was still aware of the buzz of conversation. But the focus on them faded away. I didn't notice them at all. I watched that head of hair instead.
It was dark. Really dark. Not as harsh as black, but darker than brown. It was thick. And long enough to curl up at the collar. It was parted in the middle and feathered down past his ears. My hair was feathered, too. His feathering was much better.
All I could think aboutme, who'd never so much as held a guy's hand in a man/woman wayall I could think about was running my fingers through that hair. I could almost feel the rough silkiness sliding over my hands, tickling the tender joining between my fingers.
And somehow I was lying with him. His arms were around me. How else could I get to that glorious hair?
The body attached to the hair walked close. And then passed me by. Just like that. My great-hair guy was heading up the steps to the back of the room. To sit somewhere else. Near someone else.
But not before I'd caught a glimpse of his eyes.
They were brown. And there was something about them, a depth, that disturbed me.
For the first time in my life I'd come in contact with a real-life guy who intrigued me. Really intrigued me. Enough to make thoughts of my Harlequin heroes fade into the shadows.
More than anything in the world, I wanted to meet that great-hair guy.
I didn't meet him. How could I? It's not like I was going to go speak to him. And say what? Do you mind if I run my fingers through your hair?
Or, maybe, you're the first real, flesh and blood breathing guy I've ever seen who made me feel 'things'?
Of course notI was Tara Gumser. Walt Gumser's girl-child. I lived with my nose in books. And furthermore, why would I think for one second that a guy as gorgeous as that would have any interest in me, when not one of the 400 boys I'd graduated with had ever asked me out?
Class started. I took notes. And felt 'him' behind me the entire time. The back of my neck was warm. My palms were moist.
Through the entire lecture I had one thought on my mind: what went up had to come down. If I busied myself after class, I'd still be standing there when he came back down the steps and left the room. And if I just happened to be leaving my row at the exact time . . .
I had it all planned. I wouldn't say anything to him. I couldn't be that obvious. Nice girls 'didn't.' My father, who had a temper that scared the bejeezus out of me even though he'd never laid a hand on me, had made it very clear to me that his daughter behaved with modesty and decorum.
Nice girls didn't talk to boys first. They didn't call boys. They didn't ask a boy out. They didn't let boys know they liked them unless the boy proclaimed his feelings first. And they didn't let boys even so much as smell the cow before he owned the barn. Legally. And had a license as proof.
Class ended. I busied myself closing my notebook very slowly. Conversation buzzed around me. Someone stepped on my foot, in a hurry to vacate the premises. Probably to drop the class.
My entire back burned. My senses were tuned. I had to time my exit just right. And I had to be legitimately occupied until then or I'd appear forward. Like, maybe I was interested or something.
I'd blow it before it had ever begun.
My notebook was closed. My pencil was back in my denim purse. I checked my schedule. Yep, I had a break after that class just like I'd known I did. I stacked my other books up on top of my notebook.
I made sure that my romance novel didn't show out of a corner of my purse. And I turned.
Just in time to see him exit out the other side of his row and trot down the steps on the other side of the room.
I wasn't surprised.
I wasn't like other girls.
I didn't meet guys.
I read books.