Kat chewed on her pen and studied her tutor’s bent head. Ashley’s shiny black hair was pulled back into a ponytail, held in place by a…scrunchie.
Seriously? Was that really a sparkly teal scrunchie? Kat bit down harder on her pen in concentration. Did they even sell those anymore? The last time she’d seen one, she’d been six and wrapped it around her side ponytail, pretending to be Kelly Kapowski while watching Saved By the Bell reruns.
Ashley droned on about something, and Kat yawned. She looked down at her notes but some of the words blurred, increasing her headache, so she gazed around the library. Through the windows, the late-January wind rattled the bare trees.
“Kat? Did you hear me?” Ashley’s voice needled into her ear.
Kat snapped her head back. “Um…yeah?”
Ashley slumped her shoulders with a sigh. “Look, I’m going to be honest here. I like you, okay? But I don’t think you’re getting anything out of these sessions. I think my time would be better spent with someone else.”
Kat opened her mouth but then snapped her jaw shut. It wasn’t like she hadn’t heard it before. Her inability to stay focused had annoyed plenty of tutors. Not to mention just about everyone else in her life. She jutted out her chin with as much confidence as she could muster. She’d find another tutor.
“I think that’s a good idea, Ashley. I had planned to say the same thing.” The lie came easily. “I’m doing better in statistics anyway, so I don’t need the help anymore.”
Ashley raised an eyebrow while gathering her papers. “Okay, well, it was…nice to meet you.” She winced, as if it was painful to say, then gave a limp wave and left.
Kat groaned softly. She was in the second semester of her sophomore year at Bowler University and already on academic probation. If she failed another course, she would be kicked out. This semester’s bane of her existence – statistics.
She hated her brain. Absolutely hated the way it could never make sense of words and numbers on the page in front of her. How it wandered and couldn’t focus on one thing for very long. How it was to blame for the dumb blonde jokes that followed her like an unfunny comedian her whole life.
She wasn’t even blonde. Not really. She held up a wavy curl and picked at the ends. It was more like a light brown. Caramel. Or whiskey. With blonde highlights. Were those split ends? She needed a haircut, stat. And a root touch-up because her highlights were growing out. And maybe an eyebrow wax. There was that place over on Lexington that took walk-ins…
Her cell phone vibrated on the table, announcing an incoming text message from her boyfriend. She swiped her thumb across the screen, automatically launching the text to speech app she’d downloaded after repeatedly reading her text messages incorrectly. She’d thought downloading it was genius at the time, until a clearly audible Your ass looks hot today text read in a sexy male Australian accent scandalized an unfortunate seven-year-old at the drug store.
Luckily, this message was tame.
Come ovr 2nite
She muttered to herself, “And that’s an order, Private.” Would it kill him to type please? It was only an extra six letters.
Max Payton didn’t know she had a tutor. He didn’t know much about her at all, really. But he was hot – really hot – and fun and as a junior, lived in a house off campus with his own room. And he liked to bake. Seriously, the man baked her chocolate chip cookies. They were really good, too. When she asked him the secret ingredient, he’d laughed and said flour. She was pretty sure he was making fun of her. But she’d learned at an early age to pretend mocking was just teasing.
She gathered her books and stuffed them into her plaid Burberry messenger bag, then headed toward the front doors, smoothie from the library snack shop in hand. Head bent, fiddling with the clasp of her bag, she stumbled into a wall of human on the pavement outside.
“Oh, I’m sorry-” Her voice dropped out when she realized the solid flesh belonged to Alec, Max’s best friend.
She’d only met him once or twice before he moved in with Max this semester and every time, he cocked his eyebrow with a half-frown like he knew something she didn’t. Which he actually did, since he had brainy super-powers. Smarter than a speeding Einstein. Able to leap over C minus students like her in a single bound.
She didn’t trust people that smart. And she didn’t trust a guy who didn’t ogle her ass or leer at her boobs like every other member of the male species on the planet.
She once asked Max if Alec was gay, and Max had laughed so hard, she feared he’d pop a blood vessel in his forehead. Then he assured her his friend was in fact, very straight.
She’d believe it when she saw it.
Right now, that raised-eyebrow frown pinned her where she stood. His pale green eyes behind thick black frames roamed over her shoulder to the library and then back to her. With his pin-stripe button down, dark jeans with Converse shoes and hair styled in a short, messy pompadour, he looked like a nerdy Elvis.
His frown morphed into a smile when he spotted the smoothie in her hand, and she definitely didn’t notice his full lips. “You know, you don’t have to venture into the forbidden zone just to get a smoothie.”
Oooh. The jerk. She glanced around surreptitiously, then leaned in and spoke in a low voice. “Just play it cool. Don’t let it slip someone like me snuck in the library.” She gripped his forearm and whispered. “Password today is rosebud.”
His face blanked and he looked at her like he’d never seen her before. Kat debated whether or not that was improvement over his other look.
Finally he spoke, his voice hesitant. “Uh…thanks for the heads up.”
She shot him a saucy wink and puffed her chest out victoriously as a blush stained his cheeks. “No problem. See ya around.”
Skirting around him and bounding down the stairs, she chalked that up as Kat 1, Alec 0.
She pulled out her phone and texted Max.
Come get me. At campus entrance in 10.
Kat stuffed her hands in the pockets of her fabulous – bought for a total steal – red peacoat, and took the long walk to the head of campus. The air was cold, that damp chill typical for Maryland. She sullenly glared at the bare trees on campus, wishing for spring when they’d bloom again. She’d visited the campus in the spring of her junior year of high school with her parents, and everything about the university and nearby town of Bowler felt right. During her first year as a student, she’d built friendships and kept a decent reputation.
This second year was proving to be a huge pain.
Kat arrived at the large stones marking the entrance of campus, BOWLER carved into them and painted red. She was beginning to worry about the condition of her frozen toes, Max pulled up to the sidewalk in his old truck.
“Babe, get in.”
She didn’t need the invitation as she wrenched open the rusted door and hopped inside, smiling at him.
Max had spotted her at a party months ago at the end of October and approached her. He was charming, winking those big brown eyes at her and flashing a wide, easy smile. He didn’t ask her too many questions about herself and so she didn’t pry into his life.
It wasn’t anything amazing. She wasn’t going to marry the guy. But she liked his kisses and his cookies.
“Your roommates around?” She buckled her seat belt.
“Uh, I think Cameron went home for the weekend. Alec is around, I guess.” He squeezed her thigh. “You know, he’ll be busy studying like always. Should be quiet if you want to spend the night.”
She shivered and wondered if Max was fed up with her evasion of sex. It wasn’t that she didn’t like sex. She loved it, actually. But she was over sex without an emotional connection, and that absence in her relationship with Max had so far prevented her from giving it up.
And faking orgasms was too much work.
“Maybe,” she said.
Max sighed, and she absorbed the sting of his disappointment.
They drove in his old truck to his town home off-campus. Kat gingerly placed her feet on crumpled fast food bags. Something oozed out a damp corner and she hoped it was ketchup. The color suggested otherwise.
“I thought we agreed you were going to clean out your car.” She eyed the suspicious substance and wished she had one of those hazardous waste trash cans from a doctor’s office.
Max snickered and nodded toward the bags. “I’m saving that for later.
Kat wrinkled her nose and he laughed harder.
Max parked along the sidewalk and as they crossed the street, Kat tried to grab his hand. He evaded it like always and wrapped a beefy arm around her neck. She huffed under her breath. For once, she wished he didn’t act too cool to hold her hand.
Max’s place was on the end of a row of four town homes. The high ceilings made the already large living room feel even bigger. The kitchen was a decent size, but outdated with old appliances, a crumbling tile floor and a ceiling fan light you had to tug just so if you wanted to see your hand in front of your face.
The staircase leading to the bedrooms upstairs was ornate, with a thick, solid railing Max often straddled and slid down with a whoop. There was one bathroom on the second floor, which for a guys’ place, was relatively clean.
When they walked inside the front door, Max headed right to the kitchen while Kat settled on the couch in the living room, running her hands over the ugly, fuchsia-flowered fabric. Max and his roommate Cam had found it by a dumpster before they moved in. Kat was still unsure if sitting on it would give her a rash.
Minutes later, Max plopped down beside her with a can of beer and promptly turned on the TV to a hockey game.
Kat yawned. Hockey was boring to watch. The guys didn’t wear tight clothes and lot of them were missing teeth. Playoff hockey was even worse because the players didn’t shave and had scraggly neck beards. Gross.
When she’d had enough of trying to find the tiny puck on the screen, she asked, “I’m going to make a sandwich. You want one?”
“Yeah, I think we have some peanut butter and jelly.”
In the kitchen, she searched through the thin plywood cabinets until she found the peanut butter, then pulled the jelly and the bread out of the puke green-colored refrigerator.
The front door opened and closed and low voices carried in from the living room. She shifted to the edge of the counter to grab a towel and ran smack into someone.
“Ouch!” She whirled around to face her opponent and met Alec’s eyes. She frowned at him, rubbing her shoulder. “Seriously? Twice in one day?”
He rolled his eyes and held his hands up. “Yep, I’m following you around so I can get poked in the ribs by your bony elbows.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Bony?! You think my elbows are bony?” She bent her arm and eyed the joint. “I think my elbows are quite attractive, thank you very much.”
He looked at her like one of those bugs you tolerate only because it eats worse bugs. Then his lips twitched into a grin and he leaned down, his lips near her elbow like it was a microphone. “I’m sorry, Kat’s Elbow. You are the sexiest elbow on campus,” he said in a deep, sexy voice. Wait, what? When did she start attributing Alec with anything sexy?
With him stooped for his elbow-apology, their eyes met. His green irises studied her, making her feel naked. Not clothes-naked but brain-naked. Like he pried off the top off her head to look inside.
She didn’t want anyone to peek inside the top of her head. Her brain was probably all weird-colored and deformed. It looked better covered by her skull, scalp and in-need-of-a-dye-job hair.
She steeled herself against the rush of heat flooding her face, because it was really wrong to be a creeper about her boyfriend’s best friend.
Didn’t mean she couldn’t look at his nice eyes. And big hands. And good profile with one of those Roman or Greek noses or whatever they were called. And thick dark hair she wanted to run her hands through, grip and pull. Just to see if it turned him on.
Oh sugar-snacks, and now she was having dirty thoughts about her boyfriend’s nerdy roommate.
Clearly, her brain was deformed.
She huffed in annoyance and backed away from him to resume her task, spreading four slices of bread on the counter and digging in the tub of peanut butter.
A hand crept into view and grabbed a banana off the counter while she slathered peanut butter on two slices of bread and reached for the jelly.
A throat cleared behind her. “If you put peanut butter on both sides of the bread, then the jelly doesn’t make it soggy.”
He apparently didn’t even think she was capable of making a flipping peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
She stuck a peanut butter-covered finger in her mouth turned to face him. When his eyes tracked her finger and lingered on her lips, she felt as if she won this small battle of the sexes.
She smirked. “I’m so glad you are around to show me the error of my sandwich-making ways. What would I do without you, Alec?”
He took a bite of banana, chewed and swallowed. “I guess you’d have a soggy sandwich.”
She rolled her eyes and turned back to her task.
He finished his banana and threw the peel in the trash.
“Do you want me to make you one, too?” she asked. Why not be nice?
He paused with his hand on the door. “Sure. Thanks.”
When he walked out of the kitchen, she pulled two more slices of bread and spread peanut butter on all the slices before squeezing on the jelly.
She carried the finished sandwiches out to the guys, sitting down beside Max. The hockey game was still on and even though she didn’t give two flips about it, she pretended to care since Max did. That was pretty much Good Girlfriend 101.
She took a bite of her sandwich and squinted at the TV. “So, what quarter is this? What teams are playing?”
“Babe, this is hockey. There are no quarters. There are periods and – What the fuck, ref! That was tripping! – anyway, I think you ask me that question every game. Either remember or stop asking.” His focus returned to the game. “That should have been a damn penalty,” he muttered.
Well then. Apparently she had to retake Good Girlfriend 101.
She thought about telling him she didn’t remember because she really only half-listened to his answer. She cared about hockey about as much as she cared about what an absolute risk was in statistics. But it wasn’t worth it, and she was hungry. Kat focused on her sandwich because the double peanut-butter trick was pretty dang good…
Alec cleared this throat and she looked up. “Kat, there are three twenty-minute periods in hockey. This is the first period. The Ducks are playing the Redhawks. Ducks are green jerseys; Redhawks are black. Ducks are winning.” His tone was light and almost cautious. Like he thought she was going to take his head off. It was one of the few times he had spoken to her and his attention – those intelligent eyes fixed on her – caused a rush of heat to flare in her face.
“Thanks, Alec,” she mumbled, eyes down on her sandwich to hide the color in her cheeks.
But she raised her head when her spine prickled, and they locked gazes for a moment. Kat was very aware of the air growing hot and heavy around her. Alec’s lips twitched slightly and her eyes were drawn to their fullness.
Max murmured at the TV, drawing her attention before a bow chicka-bow-wow soundtrack could play in her head.
She was so screwed.
Alec rose stiffly. He grabbed his bookbag off the couch and said, “I have some studying to do. I’ll be in my room.”
“Later.” Max waved him off, his attention unwavering from the game. Alec walked up the stairs, and Kat willed herself not to watch him. But her willpower was only so strong. At the top of the stairs, he turned around and immediately met her eyes.
Shoot! She quickly whirled her head around and stared blindly at the TV.
“Game’s getting good, huh, babe?” Max grabbed the rest of her abandoned sandwich.
“Yep,” she muttered. “Great game.”