But you can’t keep on pretending forever…
Twenty-one-year-old Jess used to have everything—a loyal best friend, a boyfriend she loved, and a future that was right on track. But in a single night, her whole world changed.
Now, Jess lives for the impersonal connection of drunken hook-ups and to-go coffee cups in the morning. All she needs is one night to pretend everything is fine…until she meets Adam.
Thanks to a sports injury, gorgeous, charming basketball star Adam Carson is stuck in physical therapy at the hospital where Jess interns—giving her the perfect opportunity to see his sweet, considerate nature and making her realize that maybe she does want something more.
But while Adam might be the best thing that’s happened to Jess in a long time, letting him past her carefully constructed walls means letting him know what happened...and why he'd never want her for more than one night.
AJ Pine writes stories to break readers’ hearts, but don’t worry—she’ll mend them with a happily ever after. As an English teacher and a librarian, AJ has always surrounded herself with books. All her favorites have one big commonality—kissing. Lots of kissing. Naturally, her books have the same. When she's not writing, she’s of course reading. Then there's online shopping (everything from groceries to shoes) and a tiny bit of TV where she nourishes her undying love of vampires, from Eric Northman to the Salvatore brothers. And in the midst of all of this, you'll also find her hanging with her family in the Chicago burbs.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Pretending comes naturally these days. It’s like a cozy blanket, wrapping me up in what used to be. All it takes is a couple of drinks, closed eyes, and strange lips traveling down my neck. I conjure the memory of a boy—my first love, my first everything. And when I fall asleep, it’s his arms I feel around me. If I don’t open my eyes, for one night I keep the dreams at bay and live in the fantasy.
I wake up cold. Not the kind that can be fixed with blankets or the body heat of the person lying next to me. An empty cold—a revelation or realization. No, a reminder. Because that’s what mornings do. They remind us of everything we tried to forget the night before when “One more drink ought to do it” seemed like a good plan.
I roll to my side and see Jim—or is it Jeff?—spooning one of my pillows. I guess it’s back to reality.
With a less-than-gentle pull, I free my captive pillow, and the body next to me stirs. I look at the clock. Ten a.m., and I have a lecture in an hour. This guy needs to do a hell of a lot more than stir.
“Hey.” I push his bare shoulder. Man this guy is solid. I remember why I brought him home last night. But it’s morning now, and Mr. Solid needs to leave.
“Hey,” I say again, nudging him harder. “You need to go.”
And then I hear it, my version of the alarm clock, the beans grinding in the coffee maker. God I love that timer and how the jarring sound of metal on solid gets Jim/Jeff to sit bolt upright in my bed.
“What the hell was that?” His voice is tinged with sleep, but he’s awake.
“That,” I say, handing him his shirt I find still strewn at the foot of the bed, “is your breakfast to go.”
He pulls the T-shirt over his head, but this does nothing to tame what the night has done to his hair. I’m not worried about his hair, though. What I don’t like is the way the corners of his mouth quirk into an almost diabolical grin.
I hop out of the bed, noting I am wearing nothing other than my tank and bikini briefs, but then again, he saw more than this last night. Not that it matters. What we did before sleeping—it’s just a means to an end, to fool myself into feeling wanted. Our little game of make-believe is over now, though I’m the only one at the slumber party who knows the rules of the game.
“Sorry, buddy.” I open the door, my hands performing a grand hey-you-should-exit gesture. “Last night was last night, but this morning all you’re getting is coffee.”
He’s standing up now, collecting his jeans and then his shoes. Once dressed, he joins me at the door.
“Maybe another time then, sweetheart.” He kisses me lightly on the cheek, but there is nothing sweet about the kiss.
I follow him out into the kitchen/living room/dining room.
“How do you take it?” I ask, heading toward the almost brewed pot of coffee.
That look on his face is back. “Wow, sweetheart. You’re almost a full-service operation. Aren’t you? Cream and two sugars.” He licks his lips, and bile rises in my throat.
Full-service. Right. If that’s what he wants to call what we did. I may not love myself the morning after, but at least I can say I have standards, that I draw a line. Sex with Mr. Pillow-Spooner—off the table. Everything else, though? That’s fair game. If I gotta give a little to get a little, so be it. I don’t know many guys who’d take a girl home for one night of spooning. Come to think of it, I don’t know any. And it’s not like the everything else doesn’t have its perks. I choose who comes home with me, enjoy myself for a night, and know that morning means good-bye for good. No delusions. What’s that saying? Accept the things I cannot change? I may be lonely as hell, but it doesn’t mean I have to be alone.
With my back to him, I allow myself a small chuckle. I’m surprised he didn’t ask for a latte. Coffee with anything else in the cup is not, in fact, coffee. Cream, sugar, foam, whatever it is—it dilutes the truth, what’s already perfect on its own. Black coffee may be bitter, but sugarcoating it is worse. Give me a guy who doesn’t taint his beverage . . . then again, don’t. It’s always easy to say good-bye to a high-maintenance coffee drinker. And Mr. Solid is exactly that, with his sweetheart and his sweetener and cream—a sugar-coater. Not that it matters. It’s good-bye either way.
I fill his to-go cup as ordered—yes, I have to-go cups—and inch him toward the door.
“Well, Jim . . .”
He raises his eyebrows, and I have to admit he is cute. Rumpled brown hair and green eyes, plus that whole solid body thing, it’s tempting even with a hangover. But I mess with him just the same because we both know the drunk girl who brings home the horny guy is nothing more than the drunk girl who brings home the horny guy. That’s the only way he sees me, the only way I want him to see me.
It’s not really forgetting a name if I actively don’t remember. A name is personal, and I don’t get personal.
“It’s Jake, sweetheart, but I’ll forgive you this time.”
He’s less cute every time he says the word sweetheart. I resist reminding him my name is Jess. As if there’d be a next time. I’ve learned well enough there never could be.
I pull the door open and hand him his coffee. “Well, Jeff, it was nice meeting you.”
He opens his mouth as he exits the apartment, but I don’t wait for him to correct me before I close the door. For a minute I stand there, eyes closed and forehead pressed against the door. It’s not that I want him to stay. It’s just that closing the door, even on a stranger, is like watching Bryan walk away again. But when I measure the pain of sleepless nights against regret-filled mornings, I choose a random guy’s arms around me every time. Maybe the next time I close the door, it will hurt a little less. And the next, maybe even less, until I’ve numbed myself completely. It’s a good plan, the only one I’ve got.
I turn around and gasp. Zoe, my roommate, stands less than six inches in front of me.
“Sorry if I woke you,” I say, stepping back into a more comfortable circumference of personal space.
She doesn’t respond at first, only looks at me like she’s doing a math problem in her head. But I know it’s not numbers she’s trying to figure out. It’s me.
We’ve lived together for only a few weeks, but I’ve already learned this is a thing she does. She studies before she speaks to me, so I study back, counting, like I often do, Zoe’s visible piercings. Left eyebrow. Nose, left side. Bottom lip, right side. Her hair is short except for her long bangs, but I can see both ears. That’s where I lose count of the tiny hoops and studs lining each. Belly button! I know she has one there. I’ve seen it. She claims there are more visible only to certain viewers. I take her word.
“I like it. No names. Good system, Elliott. Looks like it’s working for you.”
Her tone is as curious as her smile. She doesn’t accuse me of anything, but still, I play defense.
“Whatever. It’s not like my name is Sweetheart, but I’m not complaining. I don’t think he’s complaining either.” I nod toward the door. “He got what he wanted and a coffee to go. It is a good system.” I cross my arms and hope my self-righteous grin looks convincing.
Our apartment is shaped like a T, with the kitchen/living room/dining room separating my bedroom and bathroom from Zoe’s. Still, the place is small, and I know she has assumptions about what goes on in my half of our living space. I’m sure she has judgments too.
I walk back into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee—black. Zoe hops on one of our stools and watches me over the breakfast bar.
Before I can enjoy my coffee, I need to address another issue, my hangover. My mouth is dry, and I swear my brain has its own pulse. Either that or it’s getting ready to free itself from my skull.
I open the medicine cabinet. There it is—reality. I glance back at Zoe, who’s still blatantly watching me. With limited space, we share the cabinet. I never thought of hiding the bottle, never cared if she saw it, which she has. All that’s in the transparent orange cylinder is ibuprofen. Yet she’s never once asked why I keep my ibuprofen in a bottle labeled with an expired prescription for an antidepressant. That’s how I know this roommate thing is going to work out. Zoe may give me a hard time about “forgetting” a guy’s name, but she gives me my space without any real questions.
I hold the bottle in my hand, my eyes closing as the memory takes hold.
I love you, he’d said. His sandy hair hung over his eyes, and I remember pushing it back before pressing my lips to his forehead. And god I loved him too. I loved him with the kind of trust that makes you believe you can conquer anything as long as you do it together. I was naïve, trusted too easily, believed with sheer abandon.
My shoulders shake, and my stifled laugh comes out as a snort. He was the one. I saw my life mapped out with him beside me. Instead I have to-go cups and boys with maps that lead only to one place—my bedroom. It’s not funny at all, but I laugh just the same.
I can feel her stare, the back of my neck prickling with recognition that it is, in fact, a target. I wonder if Zoe can tell I’m laughing or if she thinks I’m crying.
My finger swipes the skin beneath my eye, but nothing’s there. Not even when I laugh do the tears come. I’ve trained my body well.
So I grip the bottle, my reminder of how quickly I love you can change.
I don’t think there’s a future for us anymore.
For him there is. But not for me.
Not one tear since he said those words because crying won’t change a thing.
No one could ever want me long term, not the way I am now.
I take what I can get. I don’t need a promise, only to be wanted, to let myself be wrapped in someone’s arms, just for one night.
Scrubs, clogs, ponytail, headband—love the daily uniform. I don’t have to wear the scrubs to class, but with the time it takes me to get to the hospital after my last lab, I’d be changing in a public bathroom. No thanks. Plus, there’s Tracy, the physical therapist in charge of my PT internship. For her, on time means ten minutes early.
Today I get to the hospital a full thirty minutes before my three o’clock start time. Tracy isn’t in the PT lab yet, and I silently celebrate this tiny victory. In fact, no one is here—no doctors, therapists, or patients. I haven’t interacted with any patients yet, only observed. After three weeks, I fear today will be more of the same.
I explore the various tables lining the room and the floor strewn with mats, stopping at a gap in the equipment. Here the wall sports a bulletin board filled with flyers on varied activities relating to physical therapy. It’s the same stuff every day, nothing exciting unless you’re into low-impact water aerobics or yoga basics. But a neon green flyer jumps at me from the board, and my eyes have no choice but to read as my foot moves forward, then backward, on a cylindrical foam roller.
Join Us for a Knockout Workout!
University Hospital’s Fitness Center Now Offering Boxing Classes.
10% Discount for Hospital Personnel.
My arms wrap instinctively around my midsection. I’m not overweight, but I’m by no means in shape. It’s part of the charm of not giving a shit. And I don’t give a shit, about working out, that is. But I still rip the flyer from the wall, folding it up to stuff in my pocket.
“In five more minutes, I’m saying we declare Tracy a no-show. We can bail and party it up in the hospital caf instead. What do you think? The five minute rule applies to therapists too, right?”
Great. I’m going to be in some sort of trouble for stealing a damn flyer. I spin toward the voice, anxious.
But Adam Carson is not hospital personnel. And though I do know his name, he and I are complete strangers except for spending many a night together. He, of course, is oblivious to this fact, but anyone who knows the slightest bit about college basketball around here knows Adam Carson, a six-foot-tall point guard who can dunk. And he’s standing in the doorway to the PT lab, on crutches.
“She’s never late,” I say, wondering if I should have covered the hint of regret in my voice. “And I’m pretty sure the rule is fifteen minutes, student enforced more so than professors.” I offer a weak smile mainly because his smile is so broad I feel like it’s rude not to reciprocate.
I know I should introduce myself, but saying, Hey, I’m the intern, doesn’t have the ring to it I thought it would.
“We could make it interesting,” he starts, with a raise of his dark brows. “If she misses the fifteen-minute mark, you have to run a lap around the building.”
I watch him lean on his crutches, the toe of his right shoe barely touching the ground. He looks much taller in person. I guess that makes sense when the only place I’ve seen him is on a TV screen, surrounded by players who measure six foot five and over. At five foot five, I’m by no means short, but his six-foot frame towers over me, even with the crutches.
“And if she makes it here in the next two minutes?” I ask.
Still gripping each crutch, he shrugs. “You can hardly expect me to run around the building. I’m an injured man. I could propose an alternative.”
But before he does, Tracy brushes past him and into the lab. It’s 2:49.
Not that he needs to accommodate Tracy’s petite five-foot-two frame, but Adam attempts a slight move to the right and for a quick second drops weight onto his right foot.
“Shit,” he says under his breath.
Tracy doesn’t hear him, but I do. Her back is to both of us as she looks through Adam’s chart. I start forward but stop myself. No physical contact with the patient without direct supervision.
“Are you all right?” I ask, at least wanting him to know I know he’s in pain.
A smile replaces the brief agony I witnessed. But his glossed-over brown eyes don’t lie.
“Of course,” he manages. “I’m great.”
But the words and expression are labored.
“Of course he’s great,” Tracy reiterates as she walks back in our direction. “Our patient had damaged cartilage removed by the best sports surgeon in the Midwest. He’ll be good as new by the season opener.”
Adam gives me a conspiratorial grin, though I’m not sure why, before adding, “Yep. That’s the plan.”
If I knew him better, I’d swear there was something ironic in the sound of his words. But I don’t. Know him, that is.
“Come on over to the table, Adam. I think it’s time Jess worked on her first patient.”
My eyes widen. Everything about Tracy is small—her frame, her nose, her blond pixie, and even her age. At twenty-six, she’s the youngest in the PT department, which is why she probably earned the coveted role of overseeing interns. There’s something sweet and spritely about her when you’re looking, but then she opens her mouth and has everyone’s attention.
“It is?” I ask, knowing my question is contrary to what I’ve been hoping, but I wasn’t expecting such a high-profile first patient. What happened to lovely, seventy-year-old Rose, who had her hip replaced or Chris, who just got back from completing her third IRONMAN? These are the patients I know, the ones I expect to see. Not Adam Carson.
Adam navigates the short path to the table, unsteady in his new state of mobility. He hands his crutches to Tracy. He’s tall enough to sit down on his own, but he needs her help lifting his injured leg onto the table’s surface.
“Jess?” Tracy asks. “You wanna join us?”
I hurry across the room, hoping I wasn’t standing there, staring, but what else could I have been doing?
Tracy stands on Adam’s right side, so I face her from his left. Lying flat on his back, Adam turns his head in my direction.
“Since I can’t make that lap around the building, can we consider your first patient interaction as payment for my losing our bet?”
Tracy crosses her arms and looks from Adam to me.
“Don’t worry, Trace. She bet in your favor. I lost.”
She rolls her eyes.
“How long have I been your PT, Carson?”
Long enough, I think, that she can talk to him like they’re buds. I’m a definite third wheel.
“Aw, come on, Tracy. Every day with you feels like the first.”
He freaking winks at her.
“Fifteen months. And you were playing on a bad knee long before.”
This Tracy is different than the one I’ve seen with other patients. She and Adam have a history. That much is clear. She still scares the crap out of me, but something in Adam puts the tiniest dent in her rigid professional exterior. I look at the mischievous smile on his face, the lines of it disappearing into his square jaw. I admit there is a certain charm to his being who he is and being good-looking on top of it. But I never pegged Tracy as the fangirl sort.
“And thanks to you and your never-failing punctuality, I’ll be back on the court for another season.”
Now I’m the recipient of an Adam Carson wink, like we share an inside joke. I’m not sure I get it, but I try to force my smile into something that says I do.
Tracy rolls her eyes at him and leaves the table for a minute, heading to the supply closet on the far end of the room.
“You knew she wouldn’t be late,” I say, finally getting the punch line.
“Maybe I did. Maybe I didn’t.”
“No. You knew. You just like pushing her buttons.”
He brings his hands behind his head. “What can I say? After fifteen months, you gotta keep it interesting. Besides, one of these days, I’m gonna win that bet.”
I’ve known Tracy for three weeks, but I can already say with certainty he won’t.
Before I have a chance to voice my objection, she’s back at the table with a couple of different-sized foam rollers, both small enough to fit under Adam’s ankle.
Adam’s smile falters. He knows what’s coming—pain.
“Jess, our patient here had arthroscopy of the knee. What exercise do you think we’re getting ready to do?”
Though the semester has just begun, I’ve already taken orthopedic kinesiology. It’s the class that solidified my wanting to be a physical therapist, the one that prompted me to apply to five PT doctoral programs around the country. With any luck, I’ll be getting the hell out of the Midwest by next summer.
“I’m going to say our patient is in for a round of quadriceps contractions.” I’m surprised by the confidence in my voice and immediately want to second-guess myself, but I hold firm to my answer as Tracy stares at me for several seconds.
“Show me,” she finally says, handing me both options of foam to place under Adam’s ankle. One is a full cylinder, the other a half-moon replica of the first.
Adam’s eyes, closed in concentration since Tracy came back to the table, flick open and look at me. He’s nervous, and I don’t blame him. I’ve read about this, identified every muscle, bone, and ligament in multiple human anatomy labs, but I’ve never practiced what I read. And now Tracy is giving me the reins without any demonstration, asking me to rehab a post-op patient who happens to be an Easton University celebrity.
Tracy steps back, allowing me to reposition myself on Adam’s right side. I answer the question in his eyes.
“I’m going to start with the half-moon and see how that feels, okay?”
He nods but says nothing, and for a second I think about what it would be like to be in his position.
I’ve had surgery only once, if you can call it an actual surgery. All I remember of the ambulance ride is the metallic smell of blood and my mom sitting next to me, squeezing my hand and assuring me everything would be okay. I survived the procedure, but even now, everything is far from okay. And though I know I shouldn’t blame her, because what happened had nothing to do with her, a part of me hates my mom, for lying. For promising me something that was never in her power to promise.
My focus goes back to Adam, lying here alone, and I wonder if I could fly solo like him or if I’d prefer the hand-holding and untruths.
Whether or not he needs his hand held, from me he’ll get the truth.
“First time is always the hardest,” I say. “Before we start, I’m going to take off your shoe. Is that okay?”
His teeth skim his bottom lip before the playful grin reappears.
“You’re not going to make me dinner first?”
My face flushes.
“I don’t cook,” I say, recovering quickly, and then I pull off his shoe. It’s only now I take note of his clothes—a plain white T-shirt, worn but well-fitting jeans, and green Chucks. His dark hair and even darker eyes contrast the understated tee, and it’s hard not to notice, especially without any of his bold pretense, how attractive he really is.
Without warning, a festering ache I have not felt since the last time I bumped into Bryan threatens to send me into a tailspin. But I’m good at pushing it down, hiding it in that little corner deep inside. I know the remedy for this feeling, and I’m only hours away from finding it.
I shake my head, and with it, the feeling.
My hand slides under Adam’s heel, lifting it enough to get the half-moon under his ankle. The tension in his body radiates to where my hand meets his foot. His eyes close again, his breathing heavy but still steady.
I look up at Tracy, and she nods her approval, my cue to move on to the next step, the stretches.
“Are you ready?” I ask him.
“Can we skip it if I say no?”
“Well then . . .”
He lets the rest of his response hang. I place my right hand on top of his ankle, my left under his knee. He keeps his eyes open, watching me.
“All I need you to do is press your ankle down into the foam, as far as you can. The goal is to straighten your knee as much as possible. When you’ve hit that point, hold for five seconds.”
“I don’t know. You drive a pretty hard bargain for one day post-surgery.”
Tracy backhands Adam gently on the shoulder. Can she do that?
“Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Carson. I’d have made you hold the stretch for ten. It looks like you’re in good hands, so I’m going to head over to my desk and get some paperwork done.”
“Ooh, Mr. Carson. She’s getting all formal on me. I guess I better behave.”
Tracy heads back toward her desk on the other end of the room. I try to mask my shock and slight elation at receiving my first piece of praise from her. I must not be doing a good job because Adam asks, “What’s the smile for?”
“Nothing,” I lie.
“You should do it more often.”
Great. Now I’m trying harder not to smile, which only makes me smile more. I have to remind myself this is work, that I’m a professional, and no matter how much this boy’s charm is getting to me, a girl like me has no future with a guy like him. Hell, I don’t have a future with anyone.
My smile vanishes, and I return to business as usual.
“Okay, Mr. Carson. Let’s start your first stretch.”
I don’t know a whole lot about basketball, only enough to get by, like players’ names and positions or the score of the last game. Easton is known for its basketball team, and I can strike up a conversation even during preseason. All I need to do is sit at the bar, wait for a guy to come order his drink, and ask him about his March Madness predictions. Worked last night. Why not again tonight?
The first guy who comes up to me is cute. I look at the table where he came from, and his buddies wave. He puts an empty pitcher on the bar and looks at my half-empty pint glass.
“Can I fill you up while I wait for this?” he asks, nodding toward the pitcher as the bartender grabs it.
I shrug, unzipping my hoodie to reveal the fitted tank underneath.
“Are you here alone?” He sounds hopeful. I’ve found that it’s not that hard to attract a stranger’s attention. It has nothing to do with how I look or what I wear, though I do put extra effort in on nights like tonight. But a girl nursing a drink on her own at a bar frequented by sports loving frat guys? The odds are in my favor.
“I’m meeting someone,” I lie, knowing I’m going to need that refill to go through with this. I always do. I slide my arms out of the sweatshirt, smiling and biting the inside of my cheek at the same time, my actions always at war with my will.
“What do you study?”
Ah, yes, the dreaded small talk, but I take the bait.
“I’m a double major, biology and kinesiology. Next will be a doctorate in physical therapy. I’m thinking of specializing in PT for athletes.”
And three, two, one.
“You a sports fan?”
“Basketball, mainly,” I reply. “What do you think about our team this year?”
His face lights up, like I’ve just asked THE question he’s been waiting for all his life.
“Seriously? We can’t lose. This is our year. With Carson leading our offense, I’m telling you. Final. Four. I know he’s on the bench for a bit, but damn. Dude’s gonna kill it. He has to for his senior year!”
He waits for me to jump in, but I sit there, momentarily speechless. The mention of Adam Carson—a guy who was a complete stranger before today—ignites the same damn ache, the one that does its job to quell any semblance of hope before I let it seep in.
The bartender returns with the full pitcher, and as cute guy lifts it to give me a refill, I put my palm over the top of my glass.
“Thanks, but I’m supposed to meet my friend somewhere else in ten minutes. I’m really sorry.”
His stunned look tells me he thought this was a sure thing. And it almost was, but instead I’m bailing, out the door before he can say another word.
As I walk home, heat flares in my cheeks, anger that I want to stamp down into that place where the tears have hidden since last year. When I slam the door behind me, safe in the confines of my apartment, I lose it.
At least it’s not tears, and I commend myself for the small victory.
Zoe bursts out of her room. Huh. Guess she heard that.
“Dude. You okay?”
How is she so chill? Always?
“I’m fine,” I say, stifling a maniacal laugh. “Just fucking fine.”
I look toward my room, hating the idea of going in there alone. Of waking up alone. I kick off my shoes and use my last bit of motivation to brush past Zoe and collapse onto the couch. She must think I’m insane, and she’s probably not too far off.
I expect her to ignore me, to flee the crazy girl for the safety of her room. I sure as hell would. Instead, she plops down in the big leather chair kitty-corner from me.
“Wanna talk?” she asks, absentmindedly spinning the rubber bracelets lining her wrist.
“It’s Thursday.” She turns on the TV and brings up the guide. “Wanna watch The Vampire Diaries?”
“I don’t watch Vampire Diaries.”
“Perfect. Neither do I. We’ll just watch this show that neither of us watch and not talk. Sound good?”
I nod my assent.
We’re not friends, Zoe and me, unless you consider answering her ad for a roommate I found posted in the student union. It was last spring, after I deactivated from my sorority and basically deactivated from all previous connections in my life, which meant I had no roommate for senior year. Her terms were simple: non-smoker, non-broke, and non-freak. That’s what the ad said, and I liked it. She even double-checked when I moved in earlier this fall, and I assured her I hadn’t taken up smoking or copious spending but that she’d have to be the judge on the third one. Jury’s still out, especially since we’ve never officially hung out. Until now.
We sit in silence for the duration of the show, the tension in the air dissipating like a lifting fog.
“Those are some jealous, angry vampires,” Zoe says as the credits roll. “And I’m not gonna lie, fucking sexy too.”
I laugh, and it feels good.
“Though,” she continues, “here’s the thing. I’m not really sure I have enough information to assess whether I am team Stefan or team Damon.”
“It is on Netflix,” I say, eyebrows raised.
“It would be research. You know, to make an informed decision. Don’t you think?”
I nod, and Zoe grabs her laptop off the coffee table. She moves from the chair to the spot next to me on the couch and loads The Vampire Diaries season one.
“Are we, like, friends now?” I ask, feeling like an idiot as soon as the words come out of my mouth.
She presses Play and sets the laptop on the table facing us.
“Cool,” I say. “It’s kind of been a while.”
Zoe doesn’t say anything else after this. Neither do I. Sometime, five or so episodes later, we both fall asleep feet to feet on the couch. That’s where we wake up in the morning.
I don’t have any classes on Fridays, so I head to the hospital early. Two perks of studying in the hospital cafeteria as opposed to the library or union—no chance of bumping into anyone I know and free refills of shitty coffee. I have a bio exam on Monday, so I may as well get a jump start on my weekend of studying.
“Buy you a free refill?”
I’m in full study mode, so though I hear the question, I don’t realize it’s intended for me.
When I don’t look up, I hear an obnoxious display of someone clearing his throat. This gets my attention.
I look up to see Adam Carson, still sporting his crutches, standing on the other side of my table.
“It’s free refills,” I remind him. “Emphasis on the word free.”
Why does he have to be so friendly?
“I know,” he says, his devilish grin almost cracking my exterior. “That’s why I’m buying.”
I remind myself that even Tracy has fallen prey to his charm, and I fight to resist it.
“Won’t it be difficult to walk and carry a cup of coffee?”
His right hand flies to his heart while his jaw drops in exaggerated drama.
“Ouch. You’re going to mock an injured man who simply wants to buy you coffee?”
I look at my phone. It’s only two o’clock.
“Why are you here already?” I ask, but it’s none of my business.
He pulls the crutch out from under his left arm and somehow maneuvers his long, lean body into the seat across from me.
“I could ask you the same thing. You always do your homework at the hospital? Seems a little, I don’t know, cold? Sterile?”
“Hey. I’m just messing with you. Did I say something wrong?”
I shake my head. “No, it’s nothing. You’re just the first person who’s ever asked. And yes, I do study here a lot. It’s a great place to go when I don’t want to be interrupted.”
It’s the truth, but forced charm resistance or not, I didn’t intend it to come out like that.
“Sorry,” he says, his expression wavering. “I didn’t mean to bother you. Just not used to seeing people I know hanging in the caf.”
People he knows. I’m his intern, but he doesn’t know a thing about me. He doesn’t know that I choked at the bar the other night on the mere mention of his name and that the last thing I want is to give my subconscious ammunition to do that to me again.
“No,” I say. “It’s fine. I mean, that’s why I come here, but I wasn’t trying to say you were interrupting. Shit.”
The last word is supposed to be under my breath, or in my head, but Adam hears it, and the corners of his mouth quirk back up into that goddamn grin.
I imagine it’s hard for taller people to find comfort in a plastic cafeteria chair, but Adam looks downright miserable with his bandaged leg jutting out into the aisle. He doesn’t need to be here, and certainly not with me. But here he is wearing his green and white basketball shorts, school colors, and a black T-shirt. On his feet, again, the green Chucks. His arms cross on his chest.
“Well, only because you asked so nicely, I’m here early for a consultation. ACL repair.”
The smile that’s been threatening to appear dissipates.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “You had arthroscopy. Tracy said you’ll be good as new for the season opener.”
His hands clasp behind his head, and he lets go of a long breath, as if he’s been holding it the entire conversation. “That’s the plan, for the short term at least. My doctors do any small fixes they can to avoid the larger issue for as long as possible, hopefully until the end of the season.”
He’s already on the bench for preseason practice, and now he might not make it through his final season. This makes me sad for him, a guy I barely know, and I’m not sure what to say. I don’t know how to reconcile having any sort of emotional reaction to him when I know I can’t let myself go there.
“I’ve got other plans, you know. Besides this. I’m an elementary ed major. PE.”
I laugh. “You mean you don’t major in basketball?”
He shakes his head, smiling.
“There’s more to me than basketball, Jess.”
Adam stops, but I can tell he’s not finished. His expression softens, letting me peek through the tiniest crack in his unwavering confidence.
“I’m realistic,” he continues, his voice gentle but resolute. “I’m not going pro. I knew by the end of last season that my knee would never last. But I do want to make it through this year.”
He says this to me, but the words are more for himself, a reminder of his reality. Maybe there’s not so much distance between someone like him and someone like me.
I stand up, my empty coffee mug in hand.
“I’m going for a refill. How ’bout I grab you a cup? It’s on me.”
“Thought you’d never ask. I didn’t want to have to call your bluff with the whole coffee carrying/crutches thing.”
The smile and confidence are back, for him at least.
It’s coffee, in the hospital, where I am technically his PT, even if I am just an undergrad intern. That’s all it is. I don’t care if he wants to buy me free coffee or if what he admitted somehow connects us in a shared experience of loss. And I’m going to ignore that it’s pretty damn adorable how his dark hair flips up, ever so slightly, where it reaches just past his ears. I don’t care about these things.
“How do you take yours?” I ask.
“Straight from the pot. Black.”
He shifts again in the seat, and I know he’d be more comfortable anywhere but here, yet he stays.
Fuck. As if I needed another sign to run as far from him as possible. I pour his coffee, straight from the pot, and make myself a promise that whatever this is, it goes no further than the hospital cafeteria. Not that I care.
My weekend is spent in the study cave. I stay away from the hospital in an attempt to avoid distraction, but all studying at home does is make me think of why I don’t want to study at the hospital. In other words, I’m totally distracted.
Still folded on my desk is the neon green flyer from the PT lab. I haven’t looked at it since.
If there’s a class offered today, I tell myself, I’ll go. I can’t focus on school and have nothing better to do, so I take a breath and open the flyer.
Classes take place four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. Well, I guess I’m in luck. It’s Saturday, and today’s class starts at three o’clock. I can make it if I leave now.
Zoe is gone most of the weekend. Come to think of it, I’m not really sure where she is. Despite our new connection over campy vampires, I don’t think I know what her major is, let alone how she spends her weekends. I wasn’t always a shit friend. But I never intended Zoe to take an interest in me, so I never took one in her. I make a mental note to ask her something about herself the next time I see her.
When I get to the hospital’s fitness center, I make it far enough inside to stand outside the door of the room where the class is held. What was I thinking? Apparently I wasn’t. Though physical activity and I are no longer well acquainted, I know I should have changed out of my jeans or at least brought with me more workout-friendly attire. I’m about to head back the way I came when I hear a familiar voice.
I turn so I’m face-to-face with Tracy. Instead of scrubs, the only clothes I’ve ever seen her in, she sports a fitted white tank and a replica pair of Easton’s green and white basketball shorts. She grips the strings of the boxing gloves hanging over her small shoulder. I’ve always known Tracy was fit, but the muscle definition in her shoulders and upper arms has stayed well hidden. She must be a class regular.
“Tracy. Hi. Yeah, I was just leaving.” Or, I would be leaving if this petite wall of muscle wasn’t blocking my way.
“Why?” she asks, her expression taunting, as if I wasn’t scared of her already.
I wipe my palms on my jeans. “What do you mean, why?”
She pulls the gloves from her shoulder and starts to untie them.
“I saw the flyer in your back pocket the other day, and now you’re here. You’re interested in my class, so why were you just leaving?”
My eyes widen. She knows I stole the flyer? Her class?
Her stony gaze breaks into an unexpected smile, and she nudges me toward the door.
“Don’t worry. I was nervous the first time I tried it too, but you’ll love it.”
I don’t argue, because it’s Tracy.
Backing into the room, I turn to find it lined with long, black, cylindrical punching bags. There are only ten, since the room isn’t huge, but the view is both impressive and disconcerting. I so don’t belong here.
“You’re lucky it’s the first class of the day,” Tracy says as she heads to a large metal cabinet in the corner of the room. “The gloves are fresh.”
She hands me a pair, and I hold them as if she’s handed me a pile of dirty laundry.
“Don’t worry,” she assures me. “It’s like bowling shoes. We spray them. They’re clean . . . ish.”
I try to hand the gloves back to her. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m not even dressed for this. I don’t know why I’m even here.”
If she would just take the gloves from my outstretched hands, I could leave. But she doesn’t take them. She won’t take them, despite my evident need for her to do so.
“Look, Jess. You’re here.” Her voice is even, almost soothing as she pushes my arms back toward me. “The class is still new, so I’m not expecting a huge turnout. So far we haven’t had more than five at a time. We’ll take it slow. I’ll show you a couple of basic moves, and if you don’t like it, you can leave. Sound like a plan?”
I drop my arms, my admission of defeat.
“Just lose the hoodie, because your hands aren’t the only things that will sweat like a waterfall.”
Ew, I think. But I do as she says. The T-shirt and jeans will have to do.
My gloves Velcro rather than lace like Tracy’s. Pulling them on is easy, but I feel more out of place once I’m wearing them. Three other people show up as I stand by a bag, waiting. All three walk to the closet and pull out gloves. Great, I’m the only newbie.
Two of them are girls, I’m guessing freshmen by their obvious display of the Greek alphabet on their tanks. The other is a guy. He’s blond and built and looks familiar. Maybe he’s in one of my classes, but I can’t place him.
All three stand by a bag, but none of them wear the gloves. Instead they lay them on the ground.
“All right, everyone,” Tracy calls as she heads over to us. “As always, we’ll start with some stretching and breathing before we hit the bag.”
Duh, I think, rolling my eyes at myself. My own mother teaches Pilates. I shouldn’t flake on the stretching.
“Jess, come on up to the front with everyone else. There are only four of you, and as much as I love the sound of my own voice, I don’t want to shout if I don’t have to.”
So much for hiding. I trudge up to the front, reluctance rolling off me like the beads of sweat will be soon.
“Before we start, I’d like you all to meet Jess.”
I wave my giant red hand. The heat spreads up my neck to my cheeks, and I peel off the gloves, already warm with my own perspiration, as Tracy continues.
“Jess interns at the hospital in the PT department. Jess, this is Lindsey, Becca, and Zach, all students here at Easton.”
Lindsey and Becca wave, in unison, and then totally start laughing because they waved in unison. I’m gonna vom.
“Hey,” Zach says along with a singular nod. I’m positive I’ve never met him, but I can’t shake that I know him. He makes no indication of knowing me, so I chalk it up to nerves. It’s not like I want anyone I know watching my first attempt at whatever it is I’m about to do.