How long do you hold on?
Cori Elliott likes order. Her schedule, her social life...even her GPA is perfect. Then she finds out her high school boyfriend’s death wasn’t an accident—it was suicide. The devastating revelation is enough to fracture her perfectly structured life, sending Cori in a downward spiral of self-doubt and impulsive decisions.
And right into the arms of Luke Evans.
But Cori’s life isn’t perfect anymore. In fact, it’s all coming apart. The only way she can save herself is to let go of everything—including the girl she used to be. Even if it means losing the one guy who might just be perfect for her in the process…
Each book in the Love on Campus series is a STANDALONE:
Book 1: Letting Go
Book 2: Wanting More
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By Jessica Ruddick, Alycia Tornetta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Jessica Ruddick
All rights reserved.
"Guess what, Cori?" Amber squealed. "We're paired with Beta Chi!"
I cringed at the decibel of her voice and continued making my bed. The sheets were hot pink and the comforter was zebra print. I generally opted for more neutral and less obnoxious colors and patterns, but when Amber had insisted we have matching bedding in our room at the Alpha Delta house, I let her pick. When it came down to it, I didn't care that much.
"Great," I said, not because I thought so, but because I knew she expected me to say something. I tried to remember which fraternity Beta Chi was. While there were only a dozen sororities on campus, there were three times as many fraternities. I couldn't keep track of them.
"I know, right? Homecoming this year is going to be awesome." She walked around the room and nudged aside a pile of stuff with her foot. I fought back a sigh. Even though I'd only arrived this afternoon, my half of the room was already nearly put together, but Amber hadn't unpacked the first thing, and she'd gotten here several hours before me.
One of our sisters stuck her head in our room. "The social chair from Beta Chi just called. The first party is tonight." She carried on down the hall spreading the news to the other girls.
Amber hauled her suitcase up onto her unmade bed and unzipped it. "What a great start to the year."
She rummaged through her suitcase, pulling clothes out, inspecting them, and then throwing them on the floor. In less than a minute, it looked like her suitcase had vomited all over her side of the room.
I wrinkled my nose. "You could just unpack, you know."
"Huh?" Amber looked over her shoulder at me and then looked down at her mess. "Is this bothering you, Miss Neat Freak?"
"Don't worry. I'll clean it up later." She held up a red strapless dress, shaking the wrinkles out of it. "What do you think of this?"
"I like it." It would look good on her. Amber was built like a short Barbie doll. She was barely five feet tall, but she had curves in all the right places and blond hair and blue eyes.
She walked over the clothes strewn on the floor to stand in front of the full-length mirror. She pressed the dress to the front of her body and frowned. "I don't know."
"Stop fishing for compliments. You know you'll look hot in it."
Amber tossed the dress onto her bed, with a grin that told me she'd gotten the response she wanted. "What's your schedule like this semester?"
"Not too bad. I have to take biology though."
She made a gagging noise. "I have an eight a.m. that I need to change. We all know that's a disaster waiting to happen. I can barely make it to my nines on time."
"Make sure you do that," I said. "I don't want an alarm going off in here at oh-dark-thirty any more than you do. In fact, I'll switch it for you. What class is it?"
I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop. I was greeted by a photo from my graduation that served as my wallpaper. My high school boyfriend, Tyler, had his arms wrapped around me. His face looked like he'd just sucked on a lemon, while my nose was scrunched up and my eyes were closed. He definitely won that round of our ongoing ugly photo competition. I touched the image of his face with my finger.
"English 102," Amber said, and I snapped to attention, jerking my finger away from the screen.
"Didn't you already take that?"
"I dropped it last spring, remember?"
I pulled up the schedule and scanned the course offerings. "There's a four o'clock, but nothing else."
She considered. "That's still sucky, but it's better than the eight."
She gave me her password and I added her into the class. I continued checking the course list to see if I should change any of my classes. I didn't know why I did it. Force of habit. I spent half the summer tinkering around with my schedule, so it was pretty much perfect.
Behind me, Amber was on all fours digging through a huge duffel bag. "Where is that damn jewelry pouch?"
"Just unpack." I pulled up my email. Most of it was junk except for a letter from the financial aid office. I quickly scanned it—something about financial aid paperwork. That was my parents' department, so I forwarded it to them.
"Later," she said. "I want to shower before the party. You'd better figure out what you're going to wear. I don't want to be late."
"I'm not going," I said automatically.
Amber sighed. "Already?"
"I'm going to start taking notes on the bio reading," I said, sticking my chin out. "I heard the professor is a nightmare."
"That's bullshit and you know it."
I straightened my back and pulled my bio textbook off the shelf above my desk. I looked over at her as I opened the book in front of me.
"Come on, Cori. Don't be lame."
"Good grades aren't lame," I protested. "They're going to get me into law school."
Amber snorted. "You could get good grades in your sleep. I think you did last semester, actually. Didn't you sleep in Intro to Psychology, like, half the time?"
I huffed. "A chimp could get an A in that class. And I only fell asleep once. Once."
"Hey! I got a B. So what am I? A chimp?"
I rolled my eyes. "You know what I mean." I'd actually said a chimp could get an A in that class. Since she didn't get an A, I didn't know what that made her. Not a chimp. It kind of made me a chimp. Huh. Maybe I needed to rethink that.
Amber came over and wedged herself between me and the desk, sitting in my lap.
"Amber," I said back.
"Cori," she said again, wrapping her arms around me.
I sighed. "I can't see my textbook."
"That's kind of the point."
I tried to avoid her gaze, but she gripped my cheeks in her hands and turned my face to hers.
I jerked away.
"Come to the party with me," Amber pleaded. "You can study later. Classes haven't even started yet!"
"That's the point. I want to get a head start."
"One word for you: lame."
After Amber disappeared into the bathroom, I pulled out a new pack of index cards and unwrapped them, placing them on my desk next to my textbook. I was halfway through the first chapter—which was a long chapter—by the time the bathroom door flung open and steam billowed out, followed by Amber wrapped in a hot pink towel. She had a matching towel wrapped on her head, turban style.
"Did you change your mind yet?" she asked hopefully.
I shook my head. It was too soon. It'd been four months since my world had gone to hell, and I was still on the road back. Socializing with my textbooks was about all I could manage. For now. I wanted to get back to normal, really I did, but I wasn't there yet. Soon.
Amber prattled on about how great this year was going to be now that we were living in the house and were no longer freshmen. I nodded and murmured at the appropriate times.
"Some of the girls are going out to eat before we head over to the Beta house. Do you want to do that at least?"
I shook my head. "I ate earlier."
She stepped into a pair of silver platform stilettos. "I hate leaving you home alone on our first night back."
I looked down and picked at my cuticle. "It's fine. There will be lots of parties."
She waited a moment, and I could practically hear the wheels turning in her head as she tried to come up with a compelling reason that would convince me to go. Finally she said in a defeated tone, "Text me if you change your mind."
The house was eerily quiet after the last hour of the girls' primping and preening. I returned to chapter one in my biology text, reading the paragraph where I'd left off. Then I read it again. And again.
I couldn't tell you what the first word was.
I tapped my pen against my book. So what if I didn't want to go to a stupid party? There was nothing wrong with staying in. I was fine. Better than fine. Good even.
I grabbed an index card and wrote the title of the section in purple ink and the first subheading in green ink. That was more like it. I gritted my teeth and read the paragraph again.
Two minutes later I was back to tapping my pen. Ugh. Biology was the pits. Thank God this was the last science class I had to take.
I shoved my textbook aside and pulled the laptop closer to play the latest time-sucking game that some computer geek was making millions on. I could feel my brain cells rotting.
Maybe I should go to the party. It might be good for me. Perhaps a party would jumpstart my return to the world. When was the last time I went out?
The fact that I was asking that question told me the answer. It still didn't inspire me to strap on my party shoes. And making my grades a priority wasn't a bad thing, either. Discipline was sorely underrated.
My cell phone rang.
"Hi, Mom." I automatically turned the volume down and propped the phone on my shoulder so I could continue to obliterate my brain cells.
"Hi, honey!" My mom's voice was loud and clear.
"Hi, Corinne, it's Dad, too." His voice was harder to hear, but I would rather strain to hear him than be blasted by my mother's excessive exuberance.
"Are you all settled in?"
"What about Amber?"
I snorted. "What do you think?"
My dad chuckled. "Some things never change." He had a point there. Amber and I had been friends since we were little girls. My Barbies were always lined up neatly in my pink plastic Barbie Dreamhouse with their clothes organized in a shoebox according to color. Amber's Barbies were lucky if they retained all of their limbs.
"Yeah," I agreed. I clicked the mouse furiously in an attempt to beat the current level, silently cursing the computer geek who unleashed this game to torment me.
"Is everything else going well?" my mom asked brightly.
"Yes." I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I just saw them yesterday. Not a whole lot had changed.
"How's the car running? No strange noises or anything?" my dad asked.
"Good. No noises."
"I was worried the, ah, catalytic converter might be rattling, but you say you didn't hear anything?"
I pulled the phone away from my face and stared at it for a moment, as if it could tell me why my parents were suddenly acting so weird. For one thing, my dad had inspected that car from headlight to tailpipe not once, but twice. There was no way he would've let me drive it if there was so much as a bug carcass splattered on the windshield.
"It's fine, Dad. I should probably go. I have a million things to do." Not exactly a lie. This stupid game had to have a million levels, although it would probably take me a million attempts to get to level two at this rate. I huffed as the telltale music came on, signaling that I'd failed the level yet again.
My dad cleared his throat. "There's a reason we're calling, Corinne." Then he paused.
"Okay," I prompted.
My mother sniffled loudly.
That caught my attention. My mom never cried. You know the law of physics that everything that goes up must come down? Not true with my mom's moods. She was always, annoyingly, up.
"Mom, what's wrong?"
"We just got off the phone with Mrs. Pullman."
My hand stilled on the mouse. "Is she okay?"
"She's fine ..." Her voice trailed off.
"What is it?" More silence. "Mom, just tell me."
"Oh, honey," she blurted out. "She told us Tyler's car accident wasn't an accident."
I gripped the phone, my knuckles whitening.
My mom took a shaky breath. "It was suicide."CHAPTER 2
I placed a hand on either side of the sink and stared at the paleness of my face in the mirror.
Suicide ... suicide ... suicide ... suicide ...
The word kept replaying over and over in my head, taunting me.
My heart hammered in my chest.
It couldn't be true. There had to be some mistake. The cops made a mistake, or maybe my mom hadn't understood Mrs. Pullman correctly.
The "suicide" chant abruptly changed. To something worse. To the last conversation I'd had with Tyler. To the last conversation he'd had before he died.
I squeezed my eyes shut and started doing breathing exercises I'd learned in my singing days. Excellent for stretching the diaphragm, even better for calming nerves.
Clutching my stomach, I swayed as waves of nausea hit me. How could he do it? I peered in the mirror, not recognizing the wild look in my hazel eyes. And it scared the shit out of me.
"Get it together, Corinne," I whispered to my reflection.
I splashed cold water on my face and looked in the mirror again. The wild look was fading. My shoulders slumped, and I took a deep breath.
"Cori?" Amber called from outside the door. "I forgot my wallet. Have you seen it? I can't find it anywhere."
"Haven't seen it," I called through the door in a shaky voice.
"Oh, wait. Here it is." She knocked on the bathroom door. "This is your last chance.
You want to go?"
I stared at my reflection, at my eyes that still had a slight wild look in them. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I couldn't stay here alone.
What the hell.
* * *
Amber had me ready in twenty minutes flat. I sat numbly while she did my makeup and chattered on. I wanted to wear jeans, but at Amber's horrified stare, I compromised and wore a jean skirt and a navy blue halter top. Wedge sandals topped off the look. There was no time to do anything with my hair, so my long copper locks were hanging loose and straight.
At the last second, I'd slipped on a silver necklace with a music note pendant that had once been a fixture around my neck. I'd only recently started going without it, but the feeling of the smooth metal on my throat was both familiar and comforting. I breathed a little easier.
I rode with Amber and a couple other girls. The Beta Chi house was on the outskirts of town in the middle of nowhere. The driveway was a long gravel road that led up to a sprawling yard. In the darkness, I could make out a basketball hoop on the blacktop and a volleyball court out back where, despite the August heat, they already had a bonfire going.
A blond-haired guy sauntered to our car as we were getting out of it. "Ladies, welcome." He smiled a game-show-host smile. "I'm Brad, the social chair. Make yourselves at home. Anything you need, I am at your service." He bowed and waved his hand with a flourish.
"Anything?" Amber asked suggestively. One of the girls, Kayla, poked her. Amber just grinned, slapping her finger away.
"Beer's on tap in the party room. Enjoy," he said and then to Amber, "See you later?"
"Maybe." She gave him a coy smile.
"I'll take that as a yes." He raised his eyebrows suggestively and trotted off.
"Holy crap, Amber," Kayla said. "Forward, much?"
"What?" Amber asked, her tone belying innocence. "I'm here to have a good time. And Brad looks like a good time."
We headed to the party room. Here's something I learned about frat houses last year as a freshman. They looked nothing like the ones on TV. Most were dirty, smelly, and in disrepair. I mean, honestly, what did you expect when you put two dozen twenty-something guys in a house? This particular frat house was actually a converted barn. You know that old saying, do you live in a barn? The answer was yes. They literally lived in a barn.
The party room was a huge room on the far side of the house that had concrete floors with a drain in the center. It smelled faintly of paint, and what was that other smell? Rose? Freesia? An odd smell for a fraternity house. I found the source of the scent in the outlets—scented plug-ins. Man, they were pulling out all the stops.
Three of the four walls were a clean cream color, which I attributed to the paint smell. The fourth wall was covered top to bottom in writing. A square DJ booth was in the center of the room and large speakers were bolted in each corner near the ceiling. Folding metal chairs were scattered about and a beer pong table was set up.
I wouldn't go barefoot in here, but I was pleasantly surprised with how clean it was. Of course, the semester hadn't started yet. In another week or two the fresh paint smell would probably fade, the plug-ins would dry up, and the walls and floor would be covered with a sticky coat of grime.
No one was manning the keg, so we helped ourselves, using the red cups that were stacked next to it. I took a sip and was pleasantly surprised yet again. They'd gotten quality beer instead of the cheap crap that was normally served at frat parties.
Amber and the other girls went outside to the bonfire, but I opted to stay inside. Even though I'd agreed to come to this party of my own free will, I still wasn't feeling overly social. But I didn't trust myself to be alone—the crazy look in my eyes earlier had scared me.
Excerpted from Letting Go by Jessica Ruddick, Alycia Tornetta. Copyright © 2015 Jessica Ruddick. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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