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I had never noticed Lucas before that night. It was as though he didn’t exist, and then suddenly, he was everywhere.
I’d just bailed on the Halloween party still in full swing behind me. Weaving between the cars crammed into the parking lot behind my ex’s frat house, I tapped out a text to my roommate. The night was beautiful and warm—a typical Southern-style Indian summer. From the wide-open windows of the house, music blared across the pavement, punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter, drunken challenges, and calls for more shots.
As tonight’s designated driver, it was my responsibility to get Erin back to our dorm across campus in one unmangled piece, whether or not I could stand another minute of the party. My message told her to call or text when she was ready to go. The way she and her boyfriend, Chaz, had been tequila-soaked dirty dancing before they linked hands and tripped up the stairs to his room, she might not be calling me until tomorrow. I chuckled over the thought of the short walk of shame she’d endure from the front porch to my truck, if so.
I hit Send as I dug in my bag for my keys. The moon was too cloud-obscured and the fully lit windows of the house were too far away to provide any light at the far end of the lot. I had to go by feel. Swearing when a mechanical pencil jabbed a fingertip, I stomped one stiletto-clad foot, almost certain I’d drawn blood. Once the keys were in my hand I sucked on the finger; the slight metallic taste told me I’d punctured the skin.
“Figures,” I muttered, unlocking the truck door.
In the initial seconds that followed, I was too disoriented to comprehend what was happening. One moment I was pulling the truck door open, and the next I was lying flat on my face across the seat, breathless and immobile. I struggled to rise but couldn’t, because the weight on top of me was too heavy.
“The little devil costume suits you, Jackie.” The voice was slurred but familiar.
My first thought was Don’t call me that, but that objection was quickly dismissed in favor of terror as I felt a hand pushing my already short skirt higher. My right arm was useless, trapped between my body and the seat. I clawed my left hand into the seat next to my face, trying again to push myself upright, and the hand on the bare skin of my thigh whipped up and grabbed my wrist. I cried out when he wrenched my arm behind my back, clamping it firmly in his other hand. His forearm pressed into my upper back. I couldn’t move.
“Buck, get off me. Let go.” My voice quavered, but I tried to deliver the command with as much authority as possible. I could smell the beer on his breath and something stronger in his sweat, and a wave of nausea rose and fell in my stomach.
His free hand was back on my left thigh, his weight settled onto my right side, covering me. My feet dangled outside the truck, the door still open. I tried to pull my knee up to get it under me, and he laughed at my pathetic efforts. When he shoved his hand between my open legs, I cried out, snapping my leg back down too late. I heaved and squirmed, first thinking to dislodge him and then, realizing I was no match for his size, I started to beg.
“Buck, stop. Please—you’re just drunk and you’ll regret this tomorrow. Oh my God—”
He wedged his knee between my legs and air hit my bare hip. I heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper and he laughed in my ear when I went from rationally imploring to crying. “No-no-no-no . . .” Under his weight, I couldn’t get enough breath together to scream, and my mouth was mashed against the seat, muffling any protest I made. Struggling uselessly, I couldn’t believe that this guy I’d known for over a year, who’d not once treated me with disrespect the entire time I’d dated Kennedy, was attacking me in my own truck at the back of the frat house parking lot.
He ripped my panties down to my knees, and between his efforts to push them down and my renewed effort to escape, I heard the fragile fabric tear. “Jesus, Jackie, I always knew you had a great ass, but Christ, girl.” His hand thrust between my legs again and the weight lifted for a split second—just long enough for me to suck in a lungful of air and scream. Releasing my wrist, he slapped his hand over the back of my head and turned my face into the leather seat until I was silent, almost unable to breathe.
Even freed, my left arm was useless. I leveraged my hand against the floor of the cab and pushed, but my wrenched and aching muscles wouldn’t obey. I sobbed into the cushion, tears and saliva mixing under my cheek. “Please don’t, please don’t, oh God stop-stop-stop . . .” I hated the weedy sound of my powerless voice.
His weight lifted from me for a split second—he’d changed his mind or he was repositioning, I didn’t wait to find out which. Twisting and pulling my legs up, I felt the spiky heels of my shoes tear into the pliant leather as I propelled myself to the far side of the bench seat and scrambled for the handle. Blood rushed in my ears as my body rallied for all-out fight or flight. And then I stopped, because Buck was no longer in the truck at all.
At first, I couldn’t figure out why he was standing there, just past the door, facing away from me. And then his head snapped back. Twice. He swung wildly at something but his fists hit nothing. Not until he stumbled back against my truck did I see what—or who—he was fighting.
The guy never took his eyes off Buck as he delivered two more sharp jabs to his face, bobbing to the side as they circled and Buck threw futile punches of his own, blood streaming from his nose. Finally, Buck ducked his head and rushed forward with bull-like intent, but that effort was his undoing as the stranger swung an easy uppercut to his jaw. When Buck’s head snapped up, an elbow cracked into his temple with a sickening thud. He collided with the side of the truck again, pushing off and rushing the stranger a second time. As though the entire fight was choreographed, he grabbed Buck’s shoulders and pulled him forward, hard, kneeing him under the chin. Buck crumpled to the ground, moaning and cringing.
The stranger stared down, fists balled, elbows slightly bent, poised to deliver another blow if necessary. There was no need. Buck was nearly unconscious. I cowered against the far door, panting and curling into a ball as shock replaced the panic. I must have whimpered, because his eyes snapped up to mine. He rolled Buck aside with one booted foot and stepped up to the door, peering in.
“You okay?” His tone was low, careful. I wanted to say yes. I wanted to nod. But I couldn’t. I was so not okay. “I’m gonna call 911. Do you need medical assistance, or just the police?”
I envisioned the campus police arriving at the scene, the partygoers who would spill from the house when the sirens came. Erin and Chaz were only two of the many friends I had in there, more than half of them underage and drinking. It would be my fault if the party became the focus of the police. I would be a pariah.
I shook my head. “Don’t call.” My voice was gravelly.
“Don’t call an ambulance?”
I cleared my throat and shook my head. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t call the police.”
His jaw hung ajar and he stared across the expanse of seat. “Am I wrong, or did this guy just try to rape you”—I flinched at the ugly word—“and you’re telling me not to call the police?” He snapped his mouth closed, shook his head once, and peered at me again. “Or did I interrupt something I shouldn’t have?”
I gasped, my eyes welling up. “N-no. But I just want to go home.”
Buck groaned and rolled onto his back. “Fuuuuuck,” he said, not opening his eyes, one of which was probably swollen shut anyway.
My savior stared down at him, his jaw working. He rocked his neck to one side and then back, rolled his shoulders. “Fine. I’ll drive you.”
I shook my head. I wasn’t about to escape one attack just to do something as stupid as get into a stranger’s car. “I can drive myself,” I rasped. My eyes flicked to my bag, wedged against the console, its contents spilled across the floor of the driver’s side. He glanced down, leaned to pick out my keys from the bits and pieces of my personal effects.
“I believe you were looking for these, before.” He dangled them from his fingers as I realized that I still hadn’t moved any closer to him.
I licked my lip and tasted blood for the second time that night. Scooting forward into the faint illumination shed by the tiny overhead light, I was careful to keep my skirt pulled down. A wave of dizziness crashed over me as I became fully conscious of what had almost happened, and my hand trembled when I reached out for my keys.
Frowning, he clamped his fist around them and dropped his arm back to his side. “I can’t let you drive.” Judging by his expression, my face was a disaster.
I blinked, my hand still extended for the keys he’d just confiscated. “What? Why?”
He ticked three reasons off on his fingers. “You’re shaking, probably an aftereffect of the assault. I have no idea if you’re actually uninjured. And you’ve probably been drinking.”
“I have not,” I snapped. “I’m the designated driver.”
He raised one brow and glanced around. “Who exactly are you designated for? If anyone had been with you, by the way, you might have been safe tonight. Instead, you walked out into a dark parking lot alone, paying absolutely no attention to your surroundings. Real responsible.”
Suddenly I was beyond angry. Angry at Kennedy for breaking my heart two weeks ago and not being with me tonight, seeing me to the safety of my truck. Angry at Erin for talking me into coming to this stupid party, and even angrier with myself for agreeing. Furious at the barely conscious asswipe drooling and bleeding on the concrete a few feet away. And seething at the stranger who was holding my keys hostage while accusing me of being brainless and careless.
“So it’s my fault he attacked me?” My throat was raw, but I pushed past the pain. “It’s my fault I can’t walk from a house to my truck without one of you trying to rape me?” I threw the word back at him to let him see I could bear it.
“‘One of you’? You’re gonna lump me in with that piece of shit?” He pointed at Buck, but his eyes never left mine. “I am nothing like him.” That was when I noticed the thin silver ring through the left side of his lower lip.
Great. I was in a parking lot, alone, with an insulted, facially pierced stranger who still had my keys. I couldn’t take any more of this night. A sob came from my throat as I tried to remain composed. “May I have my keys, please?” I held my hand out, willing the tremors to subside.
He swallowed, looking at me, and I stared back into his clear eyes. I couldn’t tell their color in the dim light, but they contrasted compellingly with his dark hair. His voice was softer, less hostile. “Do you live on campus? Let me drive you. I can walk back over here and get my ride after.”
No more fight in me, I nodded, reaching over to get my bag out of his way. He helped gather the lip gloss, wallet, tampons, hair ties, pens, and pencils strewn across the floor and return them to my bag. The last item he picked up was a condom packet. He cleared his throat and held it out to me. “That’s not mine,” I said, recoiling.
He frowned. “You sure?”
I clamped my jaw, trying not to be furious all over again. “Positive.”
He glanced back at Buck. “Bastard. He was probably gonna . . .” He glanced into my eyes and back at Buck, scowling. “Uh . . . conceal the evidence.”
I couldn’t even contemplate that. He shoved the square package into his front jeans pocket. “I’ll throw it away—he’s sure as hell not getting it back.” Brow still furrowed, he swung his gaze to me again as he climbed in and started the truck. “Are you sure you don’t want me to call the police?”
Laughter sounded from the back door of the house and I nodded. Framed exactly within the center window, Kennedy danced with his arms around a girl dressed in a gauzy, low-cut white outfit, wings, and a halo. Perfect. Just perfect.
At some point during my battle with Buck, I’d lost the devil-horned headband Erin had stuffed onto my head while I sat on the bed whining that I didn’t want to go to a stupid costume party. Without the accessory, I was just a girl in a skimpy red-sequined dress that I’d refuse to be caught dead wearing otherwise.
The headlights illuminated Buck as we backed out of the parking spot. Throwing a hand in front of his eyes, he attempted to roll to a sitting position. I could see his split lip, misshapen nose, and swollen eye even from that distance.
It was just as well I wasn’t the one behind the wheel. I probably would have run him over.
I gave the name of my dorm when asked, and stared out the passenger window, unable to speak another word as we meandered across campus. With a straightjacket hug, I gripped myself, trying to conceal the shudders wracking through me every five seconds. I didn’t want him to see, but I couldn’t make them stop.
The dorm lot was nearly full; spots near the door were all taken. He angled the truck into a back space and hopped out, coming around to meet me as I slid from the passenger side of my own truck. Teetering on the edge of breaking down and losing it, I took the keys after he activated the door locks, and followed him to the building.
“Your ID?” he asked when we reached the door.
My hands shook as I unsnapped the front flap on my bag and withdrew the card. When he took it from my fingers, I noted the blood on his knuckles and gasped. “Oh, my God. You’re bleeding.”
He glanced at his hand and shook his head, once. “Nah. Mostly his blood.” His lips pressed flat and he turned away to swipe the card through the door access reader, and I wondered if he meant to follow me inside. I didn’t think I could hold myself together for much longer.
After opening the door, he handed me the card. In the light from the entry vestibule, I could see his eyes more clearly—they were a clear gray blue under his lowered brows. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked for the second time, and I felt my face crumple.
Chin down, I shoved the card into my bag and nodded uselessly. “Yes. Fine,” I lied.
He huffed a disbelieving sigh, running a hand through his hair. “Can I call someone for you?”
I shook my head. I had to get to my room so I could fall apart. “Thank you, but no.” I slipped past him, careful not to brush against any part of him, and headed for the stairs.
“Jackie?” he called softly, unmoving from the doorway. I looked back, gripping the handrail, and our eyes met. “It wasn’t your fault.”
I bit my lip, hard, nodding once before I turned and ran up the stairs, my shoes rapping against the concrete steps. At the second floor landing, I stopped abruptly and turned to look back at the door. He was gone.
I didn’t know his name, and couldn’t remember ever seeing him before, let alone meeting him. I’d have remembered those unusually clear eyes. I had no idea who he was . . . and he’d just called me by name. Not the name on my ID—Jacqueline—but Jackie, the nickname I’d gone by ever since Kennedy renamed me, our junior year of high school.
• • • • • • • • • •
Two weeks ago
“Wanna come up? Or stay over? Erin is staying at Chaz’s this weekend . . .” My voice was playful, singsongy. “His roommate’s out of town. Which means I’ll be all alone . . .”
Kennedy and I were a month from our three-year anniversary. There was no need to be coy. Erin had taken to calling us an old married couple lately. To which I’d reply, “Jealous.” And then she’d flip me off.
“Um, yeah. I’ll come up for a little while.” He kneaded the back of his neck as he pulled into the dorm parking lot and searched for a parking space, his expression inscrutable.
Prickles of apprehension arose in my chest, and I swallowed uneasily. “Are you all right?” The neck rubbing was a known stress signal.
He flicked a glance in my direction. “Yeah. Sure.” He pulled into the first open spot, wedging his BMW between two pickups. He never, ever wedged his prized import into constricted spots. Door dings drove him insane. Something was up. I knew he was worried over upcoming midterms, especially precalc. His fraternity was hosting a mixer the next night, too, which was plain stupid the weekend before midterms.
I swiped us into the building and we entered the back stairwell that always creeped me out when I was alone. With Kennedy behind me, all I noticed was dingy, gum-adorned walls and the stale, almost sour smell. I jogged up the last flight and we emerged into the hallway.
Glancing back at him while unlocking my door, I shook my head over the charming portrayal of a penis someone had doodled onto the whiteboard Erin and I used for notes to each other and from our suitemates. Coed dorms were less mature than depicted on college websites. Sometimes it was like living with a bunch of twelve year olds.
“You could call in sick tomorrow night, you know.” I laid a palm on his arm. “Stay here with me—we’ll hide out and spend the weekend studying and ordering takeout . . . and other stress-reducing activities . . .” I grinned naughtily. He stared at his shoes.
My heart sped up and I suddenly felt warm all over. Something was definitely wrong. I wanted him to spit it out, whatever it was, because my mind was conjuring nothing but alarming possibilities. It had been so long since we’d had a problem or a real conflict that I felt blindsided.
He moved into my room and sat on my desk chair, not my bed.
I walked up to him, our knees bumping, wanting him to tell me he was just in a bad mood, or worried about his upcoming exams. My heart thudding heavily, I put a hand on his shoulder. “Kennedy?”
“Jackie, we need to talk.”
The drumming pulse in my ears grew louder, and my hand dropped from his shoulder. I grabbed it up in my other hand and sat on the bed, three feet from him. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow, let alone speak.
He was silent, avoiding my eyes for a couple of minutes that felt like forever. Finally, he lifted his gaze to me. He looked sad. Oh, God. Ohgodohgodohgod.
“I’ve been having some . . . trouble . . . lately. With other girls.”
I blinked, glad I was sitting down. My legs would have buckled and sent me to the floor if I’d have been standing. “What do you mean?” I croaked out. “What do you mean, ‘trouble’ and ‘other girls’?”
He sighed heavily. “Not like that, not really. I mean, I haven’t done anything.” He looked away and sighed again. “But I think I want to.”
“I don’t understand.” My mind worked frantically to make the best possible situation out of this, but every single remotely possible alternative sucked.
He got up and paced the room twice before planting himself on the edge of the chair, leaning forward, elbows on his knees and hands clasped. “You know how important it is to me to pursue a career in law and politics.”
I nodded, still stunned to silence and pedaling hard to keep up.
“You know our sister sorority?”
I nodded again, acknowledging the very thing I’d worried about when he moved into the frat house. Apparently, I hadn’t worried enough.
“There’s a girl—a couple of girls, actually, that . . . well.”
I tried to keep my voice rational and level. “Kennedy, this doesn’t make sense. You aren’t saying you’ve acted on this, or that you want to—”
He stared into my eyes, so there’d be no mistake. “I want to.”
Really, he could have just punched me in the stomach, because my brain refused to comprehend the words he was saying. A physical assault, it might have understood. “You want to? What the hell do you mean, you want to?”
He bolted out of the chair, walked to the door and back—a distance of a dozen feet. “What do you think I mean? Jesus. Don’t make me say it.”
I gaped. “Why not? Why not say it—if you can imagine doing it—then why the fuck not say it? And what does this have to do with your career plans—”
“I was getting to that. Look, everyone knows that one of the worst things a political candidate or elected representative can do is to become embroiled in some sexual scandal.” His eyes locked on mine in what I recognized as his debate face. “I’m only human, Jackie, and if I have these desires to sow my wild oats or whatever and I repress it, I’ll probably have the same desire later, even worse. But acting on it then would be a career killer.” He spread his hands helplessly. “I have no choice but to get it out of my system while I can do it without annihilating my future professional standing.”
I told myself, This isn’t happening. My boyfriend of three years was not breaking up with me so he could bang coeds with shameless abandon. I blinked hard and tried to take a deep breath, but I couldn’t. There was no oxygen in the room. I glared at him, silent.
His jaw clenched. “Okay, so I guess trying to let you down easy was a bad idea—”
“This is your idea of letting me down easy? Breaking up with me so you can screw other girls? Without feeling guilty? Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
The last thing I thought before I picked up my econ textbook and hurled it at him: How can he use such a piece-of-shit cliché in a moment like this?
Erin’s voice woke me. “Jacqueline Wallace, get your ass out of that bed and go save your GPA. For chrissake, if I’d let a guy throw off my academic mojo like this, I’d never hear the end of it.”
I made a dismissive sound from under the comforter before peeking out at her. “What academic mojo?”
Her hands on her hips, she was wrapped in a towel, fresh from a shower. “Ha. Ha. Very funny. Get up.”
I sniffed, but didn’t budge. “I’m doing fine in all of my other classes. Can’t I just fail this one?”
Her mouth dropped open. “Are you even listening to yourself?”
I was listening to myself. And I was every bit as disgusted with my cowardly sentiments as Erin—if not more so. But the thought of sitting next to Kennedy for an hour-long class three days a week was unbearable. I couldn’t be sure what his newfound single status would mean in terms of open flirtations or hookups, but whatever it meant, I didn’t want to stare it in the face. Imagining the details was bad enough.
If only I hadn’t pressed him to take a class with me this semester. When we registered for fall classes, he questioned why I wanted to take economics—not a required course for my music education degree. I wondered if he had sensed, even then, that this was where we’d end up. Or if he’d known.
“You can and you will.” She ripped the comforter off. “Now get up and get in that shower. I have to get to French on time or Monsieur Bidot will question me mercilessly enpassé composé. I can barely do past tense in English. God knows I can’t do it en français at ass o’clock in the morning.”
I dragged myself out of bed and arrived outside the classroom at straight-up nine o’clock, knowing that Kennedy, habitually punctual, would already be there. The classroom was large and sloped. Slipping through the back door, I spotted him, sixth row center. The seat to his right was empty—my seat. Dr. Heller had passed around a seating chart the second week of class, and he used it to take attendance and give credit for class participation. I would have to talk with him after class, because there was no way I was sitting there again.
My eyes scanned the back rows. There were two empty seats. One was three rows down between a guy leaning on his hand, mostly asleep, and a girl drinking a Venti something and chattering nonstop to her neighbor. The other open seat was on the back row, next to a guy who appeared to be doodling something into the margin of his textbook. I turned in that direction at the same time the professor entered a side door below, and the artist raised his head to scan the front of the classroom. I froze, recognizing my savior from two nights ago. If I could’ve moved, I would have turned and fled the classroom.
The attack came flooding back. The helplessness. The terror. The humiliation. I’d curled into a ball on my bed and cried all night, thankful for Erin’s text that she was staying with Chaz. I hadn’t told her what Buck had done—partly because I knew she’d feel responsible for making me go to the party and for letting me leave alone. Partly because I wanted to forget it had happened at all.
“If everyone will be seated, we’ll begin.” The professor’s statement shook me from my stupor—I was the only student standing. I bolted to the empty chair between the chatty girl and the sleepy guy.
She glanced at me, never pausing in her weekend confession of how trashed she’d been and where and with whom. The guy unsquinted his eyes just enough to notice when I slid into the bolted-down chair between them, but he didn’t otherwise move.
“Is this seat taken?” I whispered to him.
He shook his head and mumbled, “It was. But she dropped. Or stopped coming. Whatever.”
I pulled a spiral from my bag, relieved. I tried not to look at Kennedy, but the angled seating made that effort challenging. His perfectly styled dirty blond hair and the familiar uncreased button-down shirt drew my eyes every time he moved. I knew the effect of that green plaid next to his striking green eyes. I’d known him since ninth grade. I’d watched him alter his style from a boy who wore mesh shorts and sneakers every day to the guy who sent his fitted shirts out to be pressed, kept his shoes scuff-free, and always looked as though he’d just stepped from the cover of a magazine. I’d seen more than one teacher turn her head as he passed before snapping her gaze away from his perfect, off-limits body.
Junior year, we had pre-AP English together. He focused on me from the first day of class, flashing his dimpled smile in my direction before taking his seat, inviting me to join his study group, inquiring about my weekend plans—and finally making himself a part of them. I’d never been so confidently pursued. As our class president, he was familiar to everyone, and he made a concerted effort to become familiar with everyone. As an athlete, he was a credit to the baseball team. As a student, his academic standing was in the top 10 percent. As a member of the debate team, he was known for conclusive arguments and an unbeaten record.
As a boyfriend, he was patient and attentive, never pushing me too far or too fast. Never forgetting a birthday or an anniversary. Never making me doubt his intentions for us. Once we were official, he changed my name—and everyone followed suit, including me. “You’re my Jackie,” he told me, referencing the wife of John F. Kennedy, his namesake and personal idol.
He wasn’t related. His parents were just weirdly political—and also at odds with each other. He had a sister named Reagan and a brother named Carter.
Three years had passed since I’d gone by Jacqueline, and I fought daily to regain that one original part of myself that I’d put aside for him. It wasn’t the only thing I’d given up, or the most important. It was just the only one I could get back.
• • • • • • • • • •
Between trying to avoid staring at Kennedy for fifty minutes straight and having skipped the class for two weeks, my brain was sluggish and uncooperative. When class ended, I realized I’d absorbed little of the lecture.
I followed Dr. Heller to his office, running through various appeals in my head to induce him to give me a chance to catch up. Until that moment, I hadn’t cared that I was failing. Now that the possibility had become a probability, I was terrified. I had never failed a class. What would I tell my parents and my advisor? This F would be on my transcript for the rest of my life.
“All right, Ms. Wallace.” Dr. Heller removed a textbook and a stack of disorderly notes from his battered attaché and moved around his office as though I wasn’t standing there. “State your case.”
I cleared my throat. “My case?”
Tiredly, he peered at me over his glasses. “You missed two straight weeks of class—including the midterm—and you missed today. I assume you’re standing here in my office in order to make some sort of case for why you should not fail macroeconomics. I’m waiting with bated breath for that explanation.” He sighed, shelving the textbook. “I always think I’ve heard them all, but I’ve been known to be surprised. So go ahead. I don’t have all day, and I presume you don’t either.”
I swallowed. “I was in class today. I just sat in a different seat.”
He nodded. “I’ll take your word for that, since you approached me at the end of the lecture. That’s one day of participation back in your favor—amounting to about a quarter of a grade point. You still have six missed class days and a zero on a major exam.”
Oh, God. As if a plug had been pulled, the jumbled excuses and realizations came pouring out. “My boyfriend broke up with me, and he’s in the class, and I can’t stand to see him, let alone sit next to him . . . Oh my God, I missed the midterm. I’m going to fail. I’ve never failed a class in my life.” As if that speech wasn’t mortifying enough, my eyes watered and spilled over. I bit my lip to keep from sobbing outright, staring at his desk, unable to meet the repulsed expression I imagined him wearing.
I heard his sigh in the same moment a tissue appeared in my line of vision. “It’s your lucky day, Ms. Wallace.”
I took the tissue and pressed it to my wet cheeks, eyeing him cautiously.
“As it happens, I have a daughter just a bit younger than you. She recently endured a nasty little breakup. My whip-smart, straight-A student turned into an emotional wreck who did nothing but cry, sleep, and cry some more—for about two weeks. And then she came to her senses and decided that no boy was going to ruin her scholastic record. For the sake of my daughter, I’ll give you one chance. One. If you blow it, you will receive the grade you’ve earned at the end of the semester. Do we understand each other?”
I nodded, more tears spilling.
“Good.” My professor shifted uncomfortably and handed me another tissue. “Oh, for Pete’s sake—as I told my daughter, there’s not a boy on the planet worth this amount of angst. I know; I used to be one.” He scribbled on a slip of paper and handed it to me. “Here’s the email address of my class tutor, Landon Maxfield. If you aren’t familiar with his supplemental instruction sessions, I suggest you get familiar with them. You’ll no doubt need some one-on-one tutoring as well. He was an excellent student in my class two years ago, and he’s been tutoring for me since then. I’ll give him the details of the project I expect you to do to replace the midterm grade.”
Another sob escaped me when I thanked him, and I thought he might explode from discomfort. “Well, well, yes, of course, you’re welcome.” He pulled out the seating chart. “Show me where you’ll be sitting from now on, so you can earn those quarter points for attendance.” I pointed to my new seat, and he wrote my name in the square.
I had my shot. All I had to do was get in touch with this Landon person and turn in a project. How hard could it be?
• • • • • • • • • •
The Starbucks line in the student union was ridiculously long, but it was raining and I wasn’t in the mood to get soaked crossing the street to the indie coffee shop just off campus to get my fix before my afternoon class. In unrelated reasoning, that was also where Kennedy was most likely to be—we went there almost daily after lunch. On principle, he tended to shun “corporate monstrosities” like Starbucks, even if the coffee was better.
“There’s no way I’m making it across campus on time if I wait in this line.” Erin growled her annoyance, leaning to check out how many people were ahead of us. “Nine people. Nine! And five waiting for drinks! Who the hell are all of these people?” The guy in front of us glanced over his shoulder with a scowl. She scowled back at him and I pressed my lips together to keep from laughing.
“Caffeine addicts like us?” I suggested.
“Ugh,” she huffed and then grabbed my arm. “I almost forgot—did you hear what happened to Buck Saturday night?”
My stomach dropped. The night I just wanted to forget wouldn’t leave me alone. I shook my head.
“He got jumped in the parking lot behind the house. A couple of guys wanted his wallet. Probably homeless people, he said—that’s what we get with a campus right in the middle of a big city. They didn’t get anything, the bastards, but damn, Buck’s face is busted up.” She leaned closer. “He actually looks a little hotter like that. Rowr, if you know what I mean.”
I felt ill, standing there mute and feigning interest instead of refuting Buck’s explanation of the events leading to his pummeled face.
“Well, crap. I’m gonna have to chug a Rockstar to keep from zoning out during poli-sci. I can’t be late—we’ve got a quiz. I’ll see you after work.” She gave me a quick hug and scurried off.
I scooted forward with the line, my mind going over Saturday night for the thousandth time. I couldn’t shake how vulnerable I felt still. I’d never been blind to the fact that guys are stronger. Kennedy had scooped me into his arms more times than I could count, one time tossing me over his shoulder and running up a flight of stairs as I clung to his back, upside down and laughing. He’d easily opened jars I couldn’t open, moved furniture I could hardly budge. His superior strength had been evident when he’d braced himself above me, biceps hard under my hands.
Two weeks ago, he’d torn out my heart, and I’d never felt so hurt, so empty.
But he’d never used his physical strength against me.
No, that was all Buck. Buck, a campus hottie who didn’t have a problem getting girls. A guy who’d never given any indication that he could or would hurt me, or that he was aware of me at all, except as Kennedy’s girlfriend. I could blame the alcohol . . . but no. Alcohol removes inhibitions. It doesn’t trigger criminal violence where there was none before.
I shook off my reverie and looked across the counter, prepared to give my usual order, and there stood the guy from Saturday night. The guy I’d avoided sitting next to this morning in econ. My mouth hung open but nothing came out. And once again, Saturday night came flooding back. My face heated, remembering the position I’d been in, what he must have witnessed before he’d intervened, how foolish he must consider me.
But then, he’d said it wasn’t my fault.
And he’d called me by my name. The name I no longer used, as of sixteen days ago.
My split-second wish that he wouldn’t recall who I was went ungranted. I returned his penetrating gaze and could see he remembered all of it, clearly. Every mortifying bit. My face burned.
“Are you ready to order?” His question pulled me from my disorientation. His voice was calm, but I felt the exasperation of the restless customers behind me.
“Grande caffè americano. Please.” My words were so mumbled that I half expected him to ask me to repeat myself.
But he marked the cup, which was when I noted the two or three layers of thin white gauze wrapped around his knuckles. He passed the cup to the barista and rang up the drink as I handed over my card.
“Doing okay today?” he asked, his words so seemingly casual, yet so full of meaning between us. He swiped my card and handed it back with the receipt.
“I’m fine.” The knuckles of his left hand were scuffed but not severely abraded. As I took the card and receipt, his fingers grazed over mine. I snatched my hand away. “Thanks.”
His eyes widened, but he said nothing else.
“I’ll have a Venti caramel macchiato—skinny, no whip.” The impatient girl behind me gave her order over my shoulder, not touching me, but pressing too far into my personal space for comfort.
His jaw tensed almost imperceptibly when he shifted his gaze to her. Marking the cup, he gave her the total in clipped tones, his eyes flicking to me once more as I stepped away. I don’t know if he looked at me after that. I waited for my coffee at the other end of the bar, then hurried away without adding my usual dribble of milk and three packets of sugar.
Macroeconomics was a survey course, and as such the roster was huge—probably two hundred students. I could avoid eye contact with two boys in the midst of that many people for the remaining six weeks of fall semester, couldn’t I?
I dutifully emailed the econ tutor when I got back to the dorm after class, and started on my art history homework. While tapping out a response essay on a neoclassical sculptor and his influence on the style, I mumbled a thank-you to my inner neurotic that I’d at least kept up in my non-econ classes.
With Erin at work, I could buckle down to an evening of quiet studying. Here in our microscopic room, she couldn’t help being a near constant distraction. While I attempted to cram for an algebra test last week, the following conversation took place: “I had to have those pumps for my job, Daddy!” she argued into her cell. “You said you wanted me to learn the value of work while I’m in school, and you always say a person should dress for success, so I’m only trying to follow your words of wisdom.”
When she glanced at me, I rolled my eyes. My roommate was a hostess at a swanky restaurant downtown, a position she frequently used as an excuse for overspending her clothing budget. Three hundred dollar shoes, essential for a job that paid nine bucks an hour? I stifled my laugh when she winked back at me. Her father always caved, especially when she employed the D-word—Daddy.
I wasn’t expecting a quick reply from Landon Maxfield. As an upperclassman and a tutor for a huge class like Dr. Heller’s, he had to be busy. I was also certain he’d be none too thrilled to assist a failing sophomore who’d skipped the midterm and two weeks of class, and who had never attended one of his tutoring sessions. I was prepared to show him I would work hard to catch up and get out of his hair as quickly as possible.
Fifteen minutes after I emailed him, my inbox dinged. He’d replied, in the same formal tone I’d chosen after switching back and forth between using his first or last name in the address, finally deciding on Mr. Maxfield.
Dr. Heller has informed me of your need to catch up in macro and the project you’ll need to complete in order to replace the midterm grade. Since he’s approved you to do this work, there’s no need to share the reason why you’ve fallen so far behind with me. I’m employed as a tutor, so this falls under my job description.
We can meet on campus, preferably in the library, to discuss the project. It’s detailed and will require a great deal of outside research on your part. I’ve been instructed by Dr. Heller as to the level of assistance I should provide. Basically, he wants to see what you can do, alone. I’ll be available for general questions, of course.
My group tutoring sessions are MWTh 1-2:00, but those cover current material. I assume you’ll need more assistance comprehending the material you missed. Let me know the times you’re available to meet for individual tutoring sessions and we’ll coordinate from there.
My jaw tensed. Though perfectly polite, the tone of his email reeked of condescension . . . until his signature at the very end: LM. Was he being friendly, or casual, or ridiculing my attempt to sound like a serious, mature student? I’d alluded to the breakup in my email, hoping he wouldn’t want or ask for details. Now I felt as though he’d not only scoffed at learning the particulars, but also he thought less of me for letting a relationship crisis affect my academic life.
I read his email again and got even madder. So he thought I was too dumb to comprehend the course material on my own?
I can’t attend your sessions because I have art history MW 1-2:30, and I tutor at the middle school on Thursday afternoons. I live on campus and am available to meet late afternoons Monday/Wednesday, and most evenings. I’m also free on weekends when I’m not tutoring.
I’ve begun reading the course material on GDP, CPI, and inflation, and I’m working on the review questions at the end of chapter 9. If you want to meet to pass on the project requirements, I’m sure I can catch up on the regular coursework on my own.
I pressed Send and felt superior for all of about twenty seconds. In actuality, I’d barely glanced at chapter 9. So far, it looked less like comprehensible supply and demand charts, and more like gibberish with dollar signs and confusing shifts tossed in for fun. As for GDP and CPI, I knew what those acronyms signified . . . sort of.
Oh, God. I’d just haughtily dismissed the tutor provided by my professor—the professor who wasn’t obligated to give me a second chance, but had.
When my email dinged again, I swallowed before clicking over to it. A new message from Landon Maxfield was at the top of my inbox.
If you prefer to catch up on your own, that’s your prerogative, of course. I’ll gather the information on the project and we can meet, say, Wednesday just after 2:00?
PS—What do you tutor?
His reply didn’t seem angry. He was civil. Nice, even. I was so emotional lately that I couldn’t judge anything clearly.
Excerpted from "Easy"
Copyright © 2012 Tammara Webber.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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