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Love the story line!
19 September 2020 (02:01)
Love the book, the characters, all of it, even how the author tried to bring to light the insecurity of some men.
19 January 2021 (20:25)
I just started the book 2 day ago and already finished. It was an amazing book, and great story line. Loved the characters (make sure to give the characters time trust me).
16 April 2021 (22:23)
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09 May 2021 (20:16)
Five stars!! This was incredible the love interest was so hot and the romance so goood soo recommend
08 July 2021 (01:19)
super cringe.. really weird and way too lame for me..
09 July 2021 (01:18)
i’m going to be honest if you think this book is cringy or to lame for you clearly you have never read a cheesy football romance novel…
05 August 2021 (22:56)
I literally finished this in a day. Such a good book !
15 August 2021 (22:36)
My favourite recent read! I read it in one sitting because I could not put it down! I fell in love with the characters and their growth throughout the story. This is my first Tijan book and have since read three other books of hers, she is now one of my favourite authors!!
30 August 2021 (11:54)
I loved this book, could not put it down
14 September 2021 (10:58)
not worth my time. cringe and overdone. author has potential, but this needed more editing
06 October 2021 (10:40)
It's short and a fast read. More of an inner struggle kind of theme rather than a romance book. Well, it was finding romance while going through a traumatic episode. AND IT WAS REALLY TRAUMATIC, ALL THOSE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO THE MC, I feel bad for her :<< it was too much.
There's more narration than conversations. We get to dwell more on the MC's inner thoughts and feelings as she undergoes stages of grief and the process of moving on. Though I get confused at some parts, I guess the author's style is not completely my type.
But still damn, I skipped most of the football parts lol, I was not a fan of football but daaamn, the football guys have my heart, esp Wyatt <3
It's short and a fast read. More of an inner struggle kind of theme rather than a romance book. Well, it was finding romance while going through a traumatic episode. AND IT WAS REALLY TRAUMATIC, ALL THOSE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO THE MC, I feel bad for her :<< it was too much.
There's more narration than conversations. We get to dwell more on the MC's inner thoughts and feelings as she undergoes stages of grief and the process of moving on. Though I get confused at some parts, I guess the author's style is not completely my type.
But still damn, I skipped most of the football parts lol, I was not a fan of football but daaamn, the football guys have my heart, esp Wyatt <3
20 October 2021 (10:59)
I can´t stop reading. Love the story!!!!
29 October 2021 (23:19)
ENEMIES TIJAN Copyright © 2019 by TIJAN All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. Edited by Elaine York, Allusion Graphics, LLC Proofread by Kara Hildebrand, Paige Smith, Chris O’Neil Parece, and Amy English Beta read by Crystal Solis, Eileen Robinson, and Rochelle Paige Dedication I have a cousin named Dusty. He is nothing like the female Dusty in this book, and he did not inspire this character. I did not name her Dusty because of my cousin Dusty, but because I know my cousin this book IS dedicated to him. There you go, bragging rights, Dud. Though, it wasn’t that cousin in the family who tailgated a cop and got a ticket. Contents Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Epilogue Epilogue After The Epilogue The Letter Acknowledgments Teardrop Shot Prologue The window shattered. I heard it. It’s supposed to be flight-or-fight. I did neither. I froze. The funny thing, as I saw his silhouette approach the bedroom doorway, a part of my mind detached and all I thought about was how I had run the first time. Flight. This was the second time. If there was ever a third, maybe I’d fight then. He came in, and my gaze shifted. I left my body, my room, but I remembered the paperweight on m; y dresser. I never stopped staring at that paperweight. Chapter One That was a party house. Full out. No exceptions. That was a total party house. Every room was lit up. People were on the front yard. The door was constantly opening and closing. People were running in and out. Girls. Guys. All Homo sapiens with those red cups in hand. A person didn’t need to be a social outcast like myself to know what was in those cups. Beer. Booze. Alcohol. Liquor. I checked my email again, and yep. This was not what I had signed up for. The rental ad read, BORING! STUDIOUS! QUIET! I clicked on it, and a person named ‘Char’ seemed only too eager for me, saying I was a ‘perfect fit’ and the rest had been history. I mean, not totally. There’d been the credit history, because mine wasn’t so great since I had helped with family stuff, and she’d not been so regular on getting back to me, but the end result was all that mattered. Right? Right. I was answering myself and I was right. It was right. But no, looking at the house that matched the address and matched the pictures, that was so not right. Same house. Different context. The pictures she sent me told me it was a demure house. Boring, like her ad said. White-trimmed shutters. Freshly painted red on the house. A freaking blue door. The door might’ve sold it, or it might’ve been the promise that I’d have my own entrance and exit. My own parking spot. She said quiet, studious, boring! Boring. Hello. A party with red Solo cups and people milling in and out the door, and those weren’t even what I would consider normal party people. I was looking closer at them. I knew people from the higher echelon circles, and these people were definitely it. That was not me. No way. I had had a small scrape with someone from that world, and I walked away with a full body shiver. Well. I was shivering again. A full body/full twitchy one. I had two years left. Two freaking years. A thing happened and I had made the decision that life was short. I was going for what I truly loved, and apparently, what I truly loved took me almost five states away from my father and my stepmother. I made my decision, applied, and when I was accepted a week later, even though I was late in the application process, I searched for a place to live while I was packing my car. The house was four blocks from college. I was changing my major from pre-law to marine biology, so I needed quiet, I needed studious, I needed boring because I knew what my next few years were going to be about. I would not have a life. That was okay with me. Fully. Totally. It’s what I wanted. I let out a sigh and pulled my keys from the car. This was it. Do or die. Well, not die. Not actually. That was too—I was shivering again—morbid. My phone rang. Fishing it out of my purse, I saw it was my stepmom and hit decline. Gail would need to wait, but I knew she was worried since I drove the whole way. I hadn’t wanted to part with my car. My car meant independence, and I couldn’t afford to ship it across state lines, so I texted her back. Me: Just got here. Safe and sound. House looks cozy and quaint. Lies. I tossed it back in my purse, grabbed my bag, and had to take another moment to compose myself. I hated meeting people. Like, truly hated it. I was what you’d call an introvert extrovert. I was chatty once I got to know someone, but let’s be honest here, because of a certain incident, I was very peopled-out. Again. Noticing a theme here. The less interaction with people, the better, which was why I was having a hard time making myself leave my car. I was safe here. I wasn’t safe out there. I was shot-putting myself out of my sanctuary zone, but I had to go and face this. I also had to pee. Badly. The twenty-ounce coffee from the last gas station had been a great idea…then. Not so much now. My hair was a road-trip mess. I tried pulling it back into a ponytail, but I knew some of the strands refused to obey. They kept slipping out, and I probably smelled. More like definitely smelled. I’d been driving since five that morning, and it was now evening. I wanted to just get here, and my six-hour pit stop at a motel hadn’t been the most restful decision I’d ever made. But, alas, it was necessary. I’d been almost falling asleep behind the wheel, so I was forced to pull over. I was pretty sure the room next to me had been filming a porn—or auditioning for one—but I’d been so exhausted I’d even slept through that. Until I woke up. At five. Because my body decided it was time to go, but now I was tired all over again. With a backpack on, my purse hanging from the crook in my elbow, and a box in hand, I headed toward the house. I was feeling a kindred spirit with Dirty Dancing’s Baby carrying that watermelon. “Hey, man!” A vehicle pulled up a few feet in front of me as I was trotting up the sidewalk. A circle of guys headed for the car. I waited, breath held, thinking they’d look at me strange or say something that would draw attention to me. They passed right by me. A few skimmed up and down, giving me the once-over, but for the most part, I was a ghost. Or mist. They went up to the car and pounded fists with the two guys who got out. A couple girls went with them, darting past me, the same red cups in their hands. One of the girls almost ran into me. Her friend shrieked, pointing, and laughing at her other friend, “Look out!” “Oh. Sorry.” I tried to be invisible, wanted to be, at least. Then they were both off, still laughing and almost tripping over their own feet. Another group of girls remained near the house, sipping on their drinks, held close up to their mouths. They literally had formed a circle, but they were watching the guys. It was obvious the party wasn’t a common occurrence to them. A few were hungry, watching. A few had slight panic in their eyes, like myself. And a few others looked irritated. They weren’t dressed as skimpy as the two giggling girls. They actually wore clothes. Jeans. Shirt. Sandals. Hair in a blow-out. The gigglers only had a bikini top on and a miniskirt, clearly intoxicated in their state of almost undress. It was hot down in Texas, especially the end of August. It was scorching, even late at night, so the bikini tops made sense. But with a miniskirt? Not so much. Me. I still had my long-sleeve shirt on. Driving from South Dakota, it was warm up there, as well, but it just wasn’t the same. Still. Long sleeves were my comfort zone. I moved past the female circle jerk, and like the others, they barely noticed me. The panic-stricken girls watched me, almost with envy. I didn’t know why and kept my eyes downcast. Pausing at the door, I wasn’t sure if I should ring the bell or knock, or just go in? The door swung open toward me. “Oomph!” I managed to swing backwards, out of the way, just as two more guys hotfooted it out of there. One was big and brawny and had a golden tan. He glanced back at me as he passed, his eyes cold, but neither of them stopped. The other one, I didn’t even see. He jetted around his friends, out of sight, and my decision about ringing the bell or knocking was made for me. I walked right in. “Where’d Wyatt go?” A girl with gazelle-length legs, Greek goddess hair, and the most porcelain complexion I’d ever seen was coming toward me. She was talking to someone behind her, and as her friend stepped to the side, she saw me and grabbed the Greek Gazelle. “Watch out!” Too late. The Greek Gazelle stepped forward…and on me. Well, more specifically, on my foot. She stiffened and swung around. I was right there. Her arms smacked my box out of my arms and her body collided with me. We both went down. She screamed. I oomphed again. And cringed, hearing something snap. Then the door opened behind me. I was lying prone now, and looking up at the same time the golden tan guy with cold eyes gazed down at me. He stared, his lip curled up in a smirk, and he drawled, “Always falling at my feet, Mia.” His eyes were on me, no emotion showing, but the Gazelle snapped, “Shut it, Wyatt. Help me up.” He did so, swooping quickly down to me. I almost thought he was going to help me up first, but he reached over me instead, grabbed her hand and simply lifted her up. It was like he was lifting up a puppy or something, one-handed, by the back of its neck. But instead of a cute, cuddly neck, he was holding a slender arm, and instead of a cute puppy, the Gazelle was frothing at the mouth. If she could kill me with a look, I would’ve already died, been raised up, and ordered to bury myself again. It was that bad. “Excuse you?!” she snapped as the guy set her on her feet, then threw his arm around her shoulders. She almost didn’t notice. “This is a private party.” “Um.” Her friend was biting her lip. She was eyeing my box that was now scattered all over the immediate real estate surrounding us as everything in there had spilled out. Fuck. Shit. FUCK! Okay. Deep breath. I was calm again, and I was reaching for the contents in the box. The biting-lip friend knelt down, grabbing one of the picture frames. She lifted it up, pausing before handing it over. “Your mom?” I swiped it from her, then hurried to grab the rest. This was so embarrassing. I’d literally been here less than two minutes and I’d already been knocked on my ass and snapped at by one of the mean girls. My worst nightmare come to life. Well, technically, I lived through my worst nightmare, hence the entire reason I was down here in the hella hot Texas heat, but you get my drift. This. Not fun. I didn’t answer the question, though this girl seemed nicer. She spoke in a soft voice, her hair a little darker blonde than mine and laying in huge ringlets around her face. And she was almost as pretty as the mean Greek Gazelle. Cornflower eyes, a smattering of freckles over her cheeks, and a heart-shaped chin. She wasn’t as tall as Gazelle, but as a guy stepped around the golden couple, he knelt down and helped grab the rest of my stuff from the floor. “Here, babe.” He handed my transfer papers and my high school yearbook to the nice girl. Don’t ask me why I had the diploma in that box. Random things had been grabbed and stuffed in a rush. And I’d only grabbed the box because I felt holding a backpack in front of me would’ve been a bit much, but seriously. I needed a shield between me and these people. The girl sighed, handing over my stuff and then resting her palms on her legs. “You’re Dusty, aren’t you?” My mom had a cousin named Dustin. He got in a lot of trouble, the kind that drank, crashed, and just kept on partying. The kind that got a tailgating ticket from a cop, because the cop was the one being tailgated. Anyway, his kind of trouble got him dead young in life. He and my mom had had a special connection. They got into trouble together some of those times, and when I popped out of her, she said I had his gray eyes and I kept his dirty blond hair, so I became Dusty. Not Dustin. Dusty Gray. She always said I looked like him, too, though I was on the slender side and he’d not been. He’d been big, muscular, but those gray eyes were distinct. We had a kindred spirit. And he’d been handsome. My mom said I’d been pretty, long eyelashes, full lips, rosy cheeks, but since I never got a lot of male attention growing up, I was inclined to believe it’d been her love blinding her. She was a good mom. The best mom. “Yeah. Hi.” The gorgeous guy next to her stood up, helping her up with a gentle hand behind her elbow. I was assuming these two were together, but unlike the golden couple, who were still standing, still glaring (her) and staring (him), both were giving me friendly vibes. I added, “Char rented out her room to me. We talked and everything.” “Fucking hell!” The Gazelle threw her arms up, stalking off. “Fucking Char!” I winced, literally. Her golden bookend stayed, and his eyes grew a tad bit more interested, but he still only smirked. “Dude.” Then he left, tipping his chin up to the other guy. “I’m Savannah.” Nice Girl was holding her hand out, tucking a ringlet behind her ears. The guy gave me a lazy smile. “Noel.” They even had beautiful names. Of course. I was dust. Literally. “Hi.” I tightened my grip on my box, now glancing around. We were standing in the entryway that was between two rooms. One was a living room, a huge sixty-inch television hung up on the wall. Two couches in front of it. It looked almost like a theater room, and on the other end was another television. More couches. A few gamer chairs pulled up in front of the couches, and right then, a huge roar from somewhere close ripped through the air. “TOUCHDOWN, REEEEEEEEEEEEEVES!” Four guys surged to their feet, fists in the air, drinks raised high, their heads tipped back from the howls. A few girls shrieked, clapping along with them. A couple others were slower, looking over from where they’d been talking. Both televisions were on the same game. They were watching the local pro football team, the Kings, and if anyone was anyone, which everyone was someone, then they knew who they were cheering for. “Yes!” A guy pumped his fist in the air, spraying his drink. He didn’t care. The buddies he slapped hands with didn’t care. One girl who got most of it sprayed on her, however, did care. No one cared about that either. “Fucking Stone Reeves. He is the man!” Stone Reeves. Yes. Even I knew who he was. I picked Texas C&B because it was known for its marine biology program, but it was also known to house the newly rising in popularity pro football team, and we were smack in the beginning of that season. I’d walked right into a football party. Eyeing Savannah, I asked, “You guys do these parties often?” My box was slipping, so I transferred it to my hip and hiked it up. Before she could answer, Noel dipped his head to her ear, saying something. She nodded, smiling, and pulled away. “Later.” He gave me a polite smile before heading over to one of the couches. The guys heralded him as if he’d been declared missing with posters and a local search and rescue. I thought it was all a bit much, but no one else blinked an eye. I was in the minority. “I’ll show you your room, yeah?” Savannah ducked her head down, indicating past the two living rooms and into what looked like the kitchen. I followed, holding my box still on my hip. I wanted to have a hand free. You never knew when you’d have to push another Mean Girl aside so she didn’t trample you. A few more people were in the kitchen. The dining room adjacent. An attached patio from there. She led the way past the people standing by the sink. One was a shorter girl with sleek brown hair, bright brown eyes, and a wide smile. She saw Savannah, the smile remained, then her eyes tracked to me, to the box, to my backpack, and the smile dimmed. Dramatically. It was damn near gone as Savannah walked past her, reaching out, a hand tapping the girl’s arm in hello. The girl had been talking to another guy, another meathead-type. He had on khaki shorts, a polo shirt, and a beer in hand. He reached forward, touching the girl’s waist, but she stiffened. And hissing, she stormed past us, those frosty eyes on me. She almost clipped me at the shoulder, but I was ready. Free hand and all. It was a good thing she swung out of the way at the last minute, or I would’ve shoved her right into her guy. Savannah turned toward what looked like the garage door. My room was in the garage? For real? She motioned to me, her smile now forced and pasted on. “Down here.” Down here was a door that went to the basement, and once we were down there, it was a lot quieter. I almost sagged in relief. She noticed, her eyes crinkling. “Not one for parties?” “Not one for people who don’t want me here.” Had I… Oh shit. I had. I clamped that free hand—see, I knew there was a practical use for it—over my mouth. I was blaming the lack of sleep and sheer will that had me driving across five states in two days. “I’m sorry,” I said with my hand still over my mouth, so it was awkwardly moving with my lips. “I didn’t mean that.” She snorted, turning to the right. “Why not? I would’ve said worse.” She motioned ahead. “Come on. I’ll show you your room.” She went through what looked like a section of the basement that had been turned into an apartment. There was a kitchenette area. A medium-sized fridge. A tiny sink. A tiny oven that my grandma might’ve used in the ’30s. There were two tables. One was decked out with a red plaid plastic tablecloth, and another that was simply a brown round table. A few chairs around each. She motioned to a room attached to the kitchen, to the left of the stairs. “That’s Lisa’s room.” Her eyes flicked upwards. “The one we just passed by.” Oh. Lovely. We’d braid each other’s hair and exchange best friend beads, that much I was sure of. Then Savannah was continuing on, going through the kitchen and into another room. It wasn’t separated by a door, just a half-wall partition, and this room was obviously a game room. An old pool table. A foosball table. Even a bar tucked in the corner. She kept straight, continuing on to a door on the other side of the room. Dread lined my insides and she opened the door and stepped inside. There was no more house to go. I couldn’t be in that room. It was literally right next to a party room. There was a bar, for fuck’s sake. But I stepped to the doorway and peeked in. The room was bare. A bed in the corner. An empty nightstand. “Come in.” I did, and she shut the door. A desk was built into the wall behind the door with shelves above that. A dresser was beside it. Another door was attached on the far end of the room. I assumed it was the closet. It wasn’t. She opened it and stepped through. “Okay. So. I know this room sucks. I do. Char left and everyone shifted rooms. You got stuck with this one. And I’d like to say we never use that room, but we do. And I know I didn’t answer your question above, but we do. Often. We’re big into football.” She seemed to hesitate, biting her lip, before rushing on. “But here’s the upside of this room.” She stepped out of the way, pointing ahead. “You get your own bathroom.” She knocked on the door to her left. “This is the furnace room/water heater room/your closet.” She swept it open and there was a hanging rod put up. A lovely closet. Sort of. “But…” She shut that door, and there was one last one (I was hoping) behind her. She opened it and I was looking up at a set of stairs. “You have your own entrance and exit as promised, and just beyond that door, down the fence line, is a parking spot that’s all yours. Nicole, one of the roommates you didn’t meet, her uncle owns this house. We’ve been living here every year since after our first semester freshman year. And Char leaving, it struck a chord. She never told us she wasn’t coming back until she called last night.” “Last night?” Was that my voice? That high-pitched squeak? She nodded, her eyes heavy. “Yeah. And she informed us she got us a new roommate, a Dusty (we shouldn’t make fun of her name because she seems lovely), and we were supposed to forward all her bills. Seems she decided to spend a semester abroad with a boyfriend none of us knew about.” I gulped. “I applied to come here two weeks ago.” She grimaced. “When’d you meet Char?” Oh. Lovely. Again, so sarcastic here. “I didn’t. I answered an ad.” Her eyes bulged out. “An ad?” Her voice was squeaking like mine. I nodded. This wasn’t good. This so wasn’t good. “I didn’t know I was walking into this.” Savannah clasped her arms over herself, hugging the ends of her elbows. “Us either. And Lisa and Mia’s reactions, Char was the closest to them. They’re not mad at you. They don’t know you. They’re mad at Char. You get it.” I did. I placed my box down, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Look. I don’t know anyone else here. I’m transferring into my junior year. I get that you guys don’t want me here, but I’m here. I’m good for the rent and I already paid Char for the first month’s rent.” Her mouth clamped shut and her cheeks got red. Oh no. “Tell me she forwarded that to you guys?” “She didn’t. No.” No. Nope. I couldn’t speak. “So I paid…” I trailed off at her look, again. “Char never sent us money. She lied to you. My guess, she kept the money.” Oh, now I was mad at Char, too. I groaned. It was just my luck. Fuck’s sake. Again. “Um.” Savannah edged toward the door. “So, yeah. You’ll have to pay again. And I’ll, uh, I’ll leave you to it. I’ll get your key, too.” She paused, looking down. “Sorry about Char being a bitch, and a thief.” Sorry. Right. That wasn’t super helpful for this month’s rent. Another roar sounded from above, and we could hear them yelling out, “INTERCEPTION! YES!” She gave me an uneasy grin, pointing upwards. “Feel free to come and hang out. We’ve got lots of pizza and beer.” Then she beat it. I was fairly certain I saw her kicking up dust behind her, pun so not intended there. She couldn’t get out of here fast enough. And to a degree, I got it. I understood it. I felt for her, but she left, shutting that door, and I let out the biggest sigh in my life. Or the second longest sigh in my life. But I guess it was better than tears. Here I was. At a school I’ve never toured. In a house I’ve never seen. Living with people I’ve never met. In a state that I never thought I’d even visit. Fuuuuuck. My phone beeped at that moment. Gail: You should look up Stone since you’re there. I saw his mother in the supermarket, told her you were in the same city now. She didn’t seem too keen, but I bet Stone would love to hear from you. And, oh yeah. Did I mention that I knew Stone Reeves? Personally. No? Well, it didn’t matter. I hated him even more than I hated Char at this moment. Chapter Two It was a long evening, followed by an even longer night. Learning the way from my own entrance to my car, I pulled to the back where my parking spot was. The walk was slightly shorter, and noting how big this football party was, I was surprised I’d even gotten that spot. The backyard had people spilling out of it, but not as many. Two smaller circles and the same thing as the front yard. No one paid me a bit of attention. That wasn’t true. A few guys watched me. One started to come over to help, but Mia, the Gazelle Mean Girl, grabbed his arm and shook her head in a quick and savage motion. He resigned himself to sitting at their picnic table and just watching me. Every time I went back and forth, he took a drink. I noticed the whole table did that, too. Great. I’d been turned into a drinking game. That was the only time Mean Gazelle had smiled for real. She was enjoying my humiliation. Whatever. I trudged back and forth, shouldering my boxes and bags. I didn’t have a ton of stuff, but enough that it took five different trips, and once I was done, I eyed the shower and the bed. I was torn, but my stomach growled. The coffee had been my breakfast and lunch, and I knew myself. If I took a shower, or lay down, I wouldn’t want to get up till way later, and then I’d have a whole day go by without eating. Sighing, I washed up a tiny bit, then grabbed my purse and headed out to grab some food. There was a fast food place a few blocks away, so I loaded up. I’d have to find a grocery store tomorrow, and get real food, but until then, I had two chicken sandwiches to tide me over. After that, with their cheering and booing upstairs, I settled in. I showered. I ate. I made my bed. I began to unpack, and then around ten that night, I sat at my desk, hearing blissful silence above. Well, that was following a bunch of yelling, feet stomping, doors opening and closing, then voices outside, and car doors shutting. They had left the building. What’d I do? Remain in my bedroom like a good little unwanted thing. It felt wrong going upstairs and checking out the rest of the house when I knew at least two of the girls didn’t want me here, so I pulled out my school map and planned my day for tomorrow. It was the first day of classes, and I was registered, but I still needed to go and do all the extra stuff like get my picture taken for my I.D. Actually, get the I.D. Set up a meal plan since they were requiring one because of my late acceptance. Get my books at the store. Find the library, that was the most important. And then just walk the campus, find where all my classes were going to be. Since I was switching to marine biology, I was excited for the lab portion of the classes. I did the prerequisites at the community college near where I grew up, so those were all done and aced, but I knew it would be harder at this level. I was still surprised I’d gotten into Texas C&B, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I was here. I was doing it. I’d always wanted to be a marine biologist since I was little, and this was the right time to pursue it. My other career choices fell away. Counseling. A language interpreter. A speech pathologist. They hadn’t been the ones I really wanted, and life was short. I’d learned that a few times by now, so I was embracing it with both hands, but leaving my feet firmly planted on the ground. Tired, but feeling an odd contentment, I crawled into bed at midnight. Boom! Thud! “Fuck,” someone yelled. More feet shuffling above. I could hear the laughter. They were back. I was guessing they’d gone to a party or the nearest bar. Rolling over in bed, pulling my sheet up around me, my fan pointed right on me, I waited and hoped. Maybe they’d eat, do whatever drunk people did, and then go to bed. Boom, boom, boom! They turned on music. Loud bass pounded through the floorboards. I could almost hear them rattling, so I rolled over and did what any girl in my place would do. I muffled a scream into my pillow. It was a full-body scream, too. Even my toes got into it, twitching. I needed sleep. Like bad. Like I would get sick if I went too many nights in a row without a full eight hours, and let’s not get into why I wasn’t getting my sleep. That tied into the whole reason I came to Texas, but I know people would say they could survive off four hours a night. Yes. I could, too, but not five nights in a row. I was on night six. I. Needed. My. Sleep. But really, what was I actually going to do? I was the interloper here. I’d have to endure, and I did. Until four in the morning. And even after that, the music was lowered but it was still a soft beat until finally, I drifted off to sleep. I swear, I went to sleep dreaming about Stone throwing his football down on my head each time, and it corresponded with the techno music blaring through my alarm clock. My alarm clock. It was going off. And waking, realizing that particular dream had been a nasty one, I sat up and I was in pain. A supersonic nap would be needed later on. Pronto. Stat. Don’t get me started. I was feeling a bit punchy here. After showering and dressing, the phone started in. It was Gail. Again. This time I accepted and knew this would take a while. I sat down. I needed to preserve my energy here. “Hi, Gail.” “Sweetie!” Her voice was loud, and she was forcing a Southern accent. I didn’t know why. She wasn’t Southern. Never had been. “How ahr y’all?” This was Gail. I didn’t need to reply. She was already onto the next question. “How waas your drive? I hoped you took it easy. That’s a long way to drive by yourself. Your father left to have coffee with the men in town. You know how it is. He loves that coffee time. And how are y’all feahling today? Excited? Your classes start todaaay. Have you gotten in touch with Stone yet? He’s a big deal down there. I’m sure he’d be happy to show you the ropes, show y’all some places, maybe the best places to eat. You know.” One, Stone was a big deal everywhere in this state. Two, he wouldn’t be happy to show me the ropes. He loathed me more than I hated him, and that said a lot. And three, I had a fealing my dad was sitting right next to her. He loathed going to get coffee with the men in town as much as Stone and I despised each other. But, there was an upside to my relationship with Gail. I barely had to speak. It was mostly a one-sided dynamic, and to prove this, Gail kept right on chatting. She would exhaust herself, do both parts of our conversation so it went how she wanted it to go, and once she was happy she’d end the call. Which is what she was doing right now. “Stone is such a sweet boy.” He was an arrogant prick. “And you know, that family. They fell on hard times, too.” His family was rich, and because he could, his dad fired mine shortly after turning their grocery store into a franchise. “And Barb, she just looks so amazing. Her skin was glowing. She looks like she has trimmed down, too.” Barb was haggard looking. Stone’s mom was skinny because she smoked and drank champagne every day. Once every couple days, she’d throw in a piece of chicken, maybe a salad with that. And I knew this because we’d been their neighbors until we were forced to sell the house, and once upon a time, Stone and I had been great friends. I’d been at their house a lot growing up. All that changed once we hit puberty, of course, but Barb just kept getting skinnier and more gaunt-looking. And people talked. I mean, not Gail (in this circumstance.) She was almost the anti-gossiper here. She was literally spewing the opposite of what was true, but if she wanted to believe all of this, who was I to correct her? This was what she was choosing to think. So be it. And by the end, after she was losing speed, I only murmured, “Sounds good, Gail. I should get going.” “Oh. Okay. Have a great day, suh-weedie! Your father and I are thinking about you today. Call tonight. Let us know how Stone is when you see him.” I wouldn’t do any of that, and she knew that. My dad knew it. And she would call tomorrow, repeating all the same until she would’ve convinced herself that I had reached out to Stone, that he and I were friends again, and she would go on thinking how amazing I was doing in Texas. Chapter Three “You need a bigger meal plan.” The lady behind the desk wasn’t getting it. Red-rimmed glasses. Just as red-rimmed lips, pursed together in a slight scowl, I could tell she’d already had her fill of new students, and it was only nine in the morning. I pushed the paper back. “That’s all I can afford.” Her eyes snapped back to mine, but there was no flicker of emotion. She pushed the paper right back. “You’re a junior and you have off-campus housing. That’s all fine, but since it’s your first semester, you still have to abide by incoming freshman guidelines. You need to do either the meal plan above what you picked or the next one up. You cannot pick the option where you get one meal on campus a month.” “I live off-campus.” “I’m aware. It’s in your file. You also were accepted late, and because of that, you’ve been put in the incoming freshman program. A daily meal plan is your only option.” She. Did. Not. Get. It. I leaned forward, abundantly aware of how many students behind me who were either annoyed because I was taking longer than the average two minutes allotted, or they were eavesdropping and enjoying my further humiliation. Either way, I wasn’t taking the meal plan because I couldn’t afford it. I lowered my voice, my hands gripping my backpack straps that circled around my shoulders. “I can’t afford to go higher.” She leaned forward, lowering her voice, too. “It’s just a semester. You can have no meal plan next semester.” I closed my eyes, images of hitting my forehead on the counter flashing in my mind. “I can’t afford it,” I said this through gritted teeth, my mind already flashing through my options and a whole new feeling of helplessness erupted inside of me because I knew what I’d have to do was going to hurt. A lot. More than a lot. “You can’t be a student here if you don’t follow the rules. You can probably get through one week of classes, but the list is updated and faculty meetings happen. You’ll be called out in every single class and told to come right back here to fulfill your meal plan program. Check this box.” She did it for me and held out her hand. “And give me a form of payment, then you can be on your merry way.” This was going to hurt. So bad. Swallowing over a lump the size of a boulder in my throat, I reached into my purse and pulled out my wallet. I had a credit card. It was only there for emergency reasons, and I hated using credit cards. Hated it with a passion. So many bad years of debt were running through my memories, but suppressing a chill, I pulled it out and handed it over. She took it, eyeing me. “This will go through?” I couldn’t speak, but I dipped my head down in a nod. “Okay.” Her lips pressed together, and she ran the card. It went through. I heard the beep, and I closed my eyes again to dam up the tears. They couldn’t come, not again. I wouldn’t allow them to spill. And fuck. I was screwed. I’d have to get a second job just to pay off this bill, and now job hunting was being added to my list of things to do today. “Okay.” She handed my card back, then pulled out my updated I.D. I’d already taken the picture and gave a bright and so-forced smile. “Welcome to Texas C&B.” I snatched both, glared at her, and waited until I was at least outside the office before muttering, “Bitch,” under my breath. “What’d you say?” I looked up. It was the Mean Gazelle, and seeing it was me, her eyes cooled, but the fight faded. “Never mind.” There were others with her and her boyfriend, but I didn’t recognize any of the girls. Not that I would. I only met Savannah and Lisa. You know those moments in life, the ones where you’re walking, going about your life, and suddenly a whole herd of beautiful people walk past you? They’re staring at you like you’re the zoo animal on display, or the circus freak who’s in their own unique tent. Well, that just happened, and Mean Gazelle was one of their leaders. If I had to guess, I was sure some of them had been at the house last night. One of the guys trailed behind and turned around, watching me, his mouth pursed in an odd smirk as if he were enjoying himself, as he continued walking backwards with his group. “You survived a confrontation with Mia Catanna.” Turning, I saw a random girl had watched the whole thing, and she came over now, adjusting her own backpack. It was slung over one of her shoulders. Blonde hair. Glasses. She was petite, and like me, she wasn’t wearing any makeup, but while some used it to highlight their beauty, this girl could’ve used it to not look like she was twelve. “Her last name is Catanna?” For real? I grunted. “We had a Catanna Nursing Home back where I lived.” Her lips twitched. “I’m Siobhan.” Siobhan. Jesus. I waved. “My name doesn’t make me think of an Irish model. I’m Dusty.” “Dusty?” Another lip twitch. “Yep. Dusty Phillips, to be exact.” “Gotcha. If it makes you feel better, my sisters are all named Silver, Sinead, and Shavonia.” “Really? Shavonia?” She laughed now. “Yeah. My mom liked cocaine during her child-birthing days. Not when she was pregnant. That was the only times she was sober, but don’t worry. No pity needed. She kicked all the habits when I was twelve, moved us to a sober/hippy camp, and I spent the rest of my formidable years eating mostly plant-based food.” “Really?” Yes. That was all I could manage at that time. She nodded, shifting to stand closer as a group of students swarmed around us. “Need a fire started using only a paper clip and a match, and I’m the girl for you.” “That’s good to know. Next time I go camping, I’m looking you up.” She laughed. “You go camping a lot?” “Never.” “Yeah.” She waved that off. “That’s good because I was lying about everything.” I raised an eyebrow. “You really don’t have a sister named Shavonia?” “I do, actually. The names are the only thing I wasn’t lying about. My name really is Siobhan, and you’re going into the marine biology program?” I tilted my head to the side. “You got that from me standing here?” “No. I got that because I was three people behind you when you were in the administration building. Then I saw you leave the food office and figured I should introduce myself. I’m in the same program.” She held her hand out, and we did the formal introductions once more. Both of us were grinning by the end. “I transferred in, so I don’t know if we’ll have the same classes.” She shrugged. “We’ll have a few and we’ll be in the same building. The higher-advanced classes take place at the marina. Who’s your academic advisor?” I looked down at my schedule. “It says Anna Anderson.” “Hmmm. She’s a bitch. Hope you transferred from a good college.” My heart sank. “Community college.” She grimaced. “Well. If you’re an independent student, the good news is that she’s not going to care much about helping you. Bad news, if you’re a student who needs a good relationship with your advisor, you might want to put a transfer in now.” “Transfer to a new school?” My voice broke. I couldn’t have heard that right. I just got here. “No!” She barked out a laugh. “A new advisor. It sucks to say, but Dr. Anderson is one of those profs who only wants to mentor the brightest and most-promising students. If you’re coming in from a community college, she’s going to write you off as a D, maybe C student. She won’t waste her time.” “Oh.” That sucked. “Good to know, I guess. Who’s your advisor?” She grinned. “Dr. Anna Anderson. I’m her TA.” I almost choked. “Are you kidding?” “No, that’s how I know what I’m saying is true. She’ll smile in your face and make you feel appreciated, then she’ll hand off your folder to me and instruct me to draw up a generic letter of recommendation for you two years early. I’ve drawn up eight already for some summer students just last week.” “Damn.” Yeah. That huge pile of feeling helpless and hopeless, it was building. But no. I hadn’t gone through what I went through, decided to go for what I really loved, only to be detoured by a jaded meal-plan office worker and a stuck-up academic advisor, or even mean roommates in a party house. I would endure. That’s the one quality us Phillips’ had in abundance. We’d endured worse. This was just a blip in my life. “Okay.” Decision made. “Where do I put in for an advisor transfer?” “Come on.” She nodded back toward the building I just came out of. “I’ll show you. Susan Cord is really nice, and she has a soft spot for the underdog students since she considers herself one.” God. An underdog. I’d already been painted that way. Guess it was better than what happened at my last college. I suppressed a shiver. Anything was better than what happened there. Chapter Four Someone knocked on my door the next night, and I knew who it was. Not because it was a soft knock or any other reason, but because there was literally only one person who’d knock on my door. My first day of classes was overwhelming. I had genetics, biostats, intro to cell biology, and I indulged with one marine class. Fundamentals of marine biology, though, okay, it wasn’t a total indulge class. It was still the next level up from basic requirements, but I was getting close. That meant something to me. And finding out that Siobhan was in my genetics class, I felt a lot better. We planned to meet for lunch after class the next day, after all, I’d just paid for a meal plan I couldn’t afford, but I was looking forward to the company. Since then, just classes, just me time. The house had been quiet last night when I got back from campus. I heard people arrive late, around ten, but they settled down around one in the morning. When I got back from my two classes today, I’d been surprised to find Lisa studying in the basement, but that was it. She was at the table, and seeing me coming out of my room, she cursed and shoved her books closed. Storming into her room, her door was slammed shut just as I got to the fridge. Well, then. I still wasn’t going anywhere, and I was just now figuring I should try finding a grocery store when that knock came. Standing to open the door, I already had my polite smile on my face. “Hi, Savannah.” It wasn’t Savannah. A girl with brown hair, shoulder-length, and almond eyes, a smaller frame, but with meat on her was there instead. She tipped her head down, looking at me. “You’re the new roommate.” I was guessing this was Nicole. “Hi. Your uncle owns the house?” A short nod. “Yep.” She observed me the same time I was observing her. I’d dressed simply that night. Jeans. A Texas C&B tank top and flip flops. She was dressed similarly, and both of us were trying to hide a grin. She cleared her face, her eyes cooling, though I thought it looked like she needed to put in some effort to do that. “Look, the house is technically my uncle’s, I felt like I should properly introduce myself. Sav said you arrived Sunday night. I wasn’t around yesterday.” She came in, noting my textbook out on the desk. “Genetics, huh?” “Um. Yeah.” I left the door wide and resumed my seat behind my desk. She nodded, swinging her leg back and forth, her toe anchored on the ground. “That’s cool. Lisa had that class last year. She’s in the nursing program.” She flashed me a grin. “I’m not as ambitious. I’m in education. Gonna be a teach like my ma, but I am ambitious because I’m specializing in middle school. Gonna crack those adolescent pubescents one at a time.” “What about Savannah?” “Sav’s going into sports medicine. It’s how she met Noel, actually, and how most of us met any of the guys.” “What do you mean?” “Noel.” She waited, expecting a reaction. I had nothing. “Oh. Oh, yeah! Noel.” She cracked up again. “You have no clue, do you?” Not a one. But I just shrugged. “Noel and Savannah seem nice.” She snorted. “They’re the couple on campus. If we had royalty here, it’d be them. Noel’s starting quarterback for our school, and everyone loves Sav. She’s considered C&B’s princess, but Mia hates it. She likes to think she’s the school’s queen bitch instead.” It was worse than I thought, and I was following everything she just said. This house wasn’t just a football-frenzy house. It was football. They were football. “Are you kidding?” I was feeling the blood draining from my face. It was going to pool at my feet. There’d be a mess, and another reason they would hate me, and want to kick me out. Nicole grinned. “Not a football fan? Sav mentioned you asked if we had a lot of football parties.” I’d moved into my nightmare house. Straight up. I had to start looking for a new place to live. Stat. “It’s okay.” She burst out laughing. “Well, at least I know now you’re a shit liar. Good to know.” She took pity on me. “Wyatt’s one of the wide receivers. Nacho’s a halfback. Dent’s a defensive end.” All these football terms. I was being pelted. “Really. Wow. That’s super impressive.” She was still snickering. “Listen, I know Mia and Lisa are kinda being bitches about you being here, but you’re here. It is what it is. Char was a bitch for what she did, and most of it was a middle finger to Mia and Lisa for things they were saying last semester. You seem nice. You’re quiet. I already know that. If you want to stay, you can stay. Rent’s due the first of the month. My uncle rigged a rent box in the back of the house, just put your check in there and it’ll be fine.” She paused a beat. “Sav told me what Char did. I’d like to say it’s cool, but no one can cover you. The only redeeming thing I can say is that Char’ll be back, and we’ll get the money then.” “What about utilities?” “We only pay cable and Internet. You just need to chip in for those.” “Who do I pay for that?” “Mia’s in charge of paying those bills, so you gotta give your money to her. It’s usually only fifty dollars.” “When’s that due?” “You’re good for this month, so not till end of next month.” More money, but I had a fund set aside just for bills. I had planned for this. “Okay.” “Um.” She stood up, and we heard more footsteps going over my ceiling above. “That’s probably the group. We’re heading out for dinner. You want to come?” I couldn’t move. I wasn’t sure if this was the beginning of a set-up or not. I’d been observing them by now, and they were social creatures. So were killer whales. I was not a killer whale. I was more a spotfin lionfish, but you know, without the venom and the beautiful dorsal fins. But I was antisocial. That was my point, and I was that way for a reason. “Mia’s at Wyatt’s and Lisa’s at the library. It’s just me, Sav, Noel, and a few others.” A few others. I already knew that probably meant close to ten people. I was torn. This was an olive branch, I was thinking. Or assuming. Or just hoping. She said the two girls who hated me wouldn’t be there, but I did have a crap ton of studying to do already. Shit. What should I do? She took pity on me again. “Listen, come. If it’s not the scene for you, we can Uber back? I’ll order the Uber, on me. I’ll make sure we go somewhere small. I think they mentioned the bar on campus.” With an offer like that, I knew I had to go. She was making so many concessions just to get me to hang out with them. This was so a set-up. I was the outcast seal swimming to my slaughter. They just wanted to play with me a bit before eating me. I nodded and grabbed my purse. “I’m game.” What else could I do? “Great.” My roommate was a liar. I knew there was a bar on campus. It was a small pub. Quaint. I saw it once walking past it, but I didn’t know there were two bars on campus, and the one their group went to was the opposite of small. It was huge. Sixteen large screens were mounted around the place. It was an on-campus version of Wild Wings. It was a total sports hangout, and when we walked in, they were heralded as long-lost family members. A collective greeting came up from everywhere, but I’d been prepared for that. A D1 school, and Noel was the starting quarterback, he was a big deal. A really big deal. Savannah was next to him. And Nicole had introduced me to Nacho and Dent. Dent was the guy who had been going to help me the first night until Mia stopped him. He had dark eyes and he’d been watching me the whole time. He sat next to me when we all piled into a huge booth in the corner. It was one that seated up to twelve people. Nicole was on my left and Dent was on my right. Reaching for the menu, his arm grazed mine. I pulled my arm away, not to be rude, but because I had a thing with personal space and people invading it. “Sorry.” “It’s me. I have a personal bubble issue.” He chuckled. “Not for that, for the first night. We should’ve helped you bring in your boxes. It would have been the right thing to do.” Oh. That. I shrugged. “It’s fine. It’s cool.” “No, really. We should’ve helped. Not all of us are like Liss and Mia. Some of us are cool. Friendly, even.” Yeah. He was being friendly now, but the jaded part of me, the side of me that knew I was living in a kill or be killed kinda world wondered if he’d keep it up when and if Mia was around. I was thinking not. “They’re—” I didn’t know what to say. And I only had enough money for a small order of wings, so I didn’t need to peruse the menu anymore. I settled for picking at my napkin. “They’re fine.” “They’re being bitches.” The guy next to Dent heard and choked back a laugh. “You’re just pissy because Lisa shot you down hard last night.” And that put him in a whole new light. I shifted back just as his gaze whipped back to mine. His eyebrows rose. “It’s not like that.” No. I was getting what it was like exactly. “It’s cool.” But fuck. For real. Nicole and Savannah, I could get them. I was the new roommate. They hadn’t kicked me out, so I was figuring the two had taken pity on me. I mean, I was looking around. There were people galore around them, and others still on the periphery. Girls who would’ve been my replacement. Why Char did what she did…yeah, that was a bitch move. To them and myself, but it was done. I couldn’t afford my own place yet. No way. They were only making me pay three hundred a month, and I knew that was a steal where the house was located, that it actually was a house. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I’d put up with the loud and the football, if only for a semester. But this guy, he didn’t have to pretend to be nice to me. I saw him start to offer to help, then he was stopped. I thought for just the briefest of seconds that maybe I’d found another ally. A person needed to try to get along with their roommates, right? Their friends? I was an idiot, and another realization hit me. I shouldn’t have been there, especially when every channel was turned to a sports channel and half of the screens were raving about Stone. And just then, because it seemed the universe was against me, my phone chimed a text. Gail: Here’s Stone’s phone number. I made your father ask Charles. A contact alert came through and fuuuck. My thumb moved to delete it, but I waited. I mean, I hated him. With every bone in my body, but he literally was the only person from back home that I knew in the city. Then again, he probably had a filter for callers. He wouldn’t know my number. He wouldn’t take it, and even if he did know it or have mine programmed into his phone, he really wouldn’t take it. The hatred was mutual and that was the only thing we could both bond over. Why was Gail doing this to me? Was my dad really letting her go down this path of delusions? He knew I hated Stone as much as I knew he hated Charles and Barb. There was literally no love lost between our foursome. But still, I didn’t delete it. I could come back to it, in case something happened. An emergency of some sort, like if I had to get ahold of him. “It’s not like that.” I jerked my head up just as he started to look at my phone. I clicked the button, turning my screen off, and I waited, my breath held, frozen, hoping he hadn’t read Stone’s name when Gail shared the contact with me. That was absolutely the last thing I wanted to happen here. “That your mom?” He was so sweet, assuming the only person who’d text me would be by my mom. “My mom’s dead.” He jerked back in his seat, his eyes widening. I kept it to myself that it had been my stepmom as I put my phone away. It was then that I knew it was time to cut and run before I got in deeper. Consider the outcasted seal wising up and learning killer whales were not the herd to swim with. “Mind if I head to the bathroom?” “Hey. I’m sorry about—” I waved that off. “She died a long time ago. It’s no big. Can you let me out? I gotta piss.” He wavered, but the guy beside him was already shifting out. So did Dent, and then I was free. They didn’t wait for me to take off. Both got back in the booth, and I moved a few steps, watching. No one noticed I’d left. They weren’t paying attention, and even after going to the bathroom, then coming back, I lingered before deciding if I truly should ditch or try to get ahold of Nicole and let her know I was going. She was leaning into Dent, who had his arm around the back of her seat. They were all laughing, and observing the tables around them, I wasn’t the only one watching. This was their group. This was what happened when they went out. I was starting to get that. They were watched by everyone, and a bunch of people came and went from talking to them, returning to their own tables after they’d been seen interacting with them. Others replaced them. With the ease they all portrayed, this was an everyday thing for them. Yeah. I eased backwards. They wouldn’t even remember that I’d gone with them, so with that decided, I headed for the exit. I used my money for the cab instead. Chapter Five The rest of the week passed without much incident. Classes were hard, but I knew they would be. I already had a short paper due in two of them, and we had quizzes in my other two classes. Nicole and Savannah never came back down to my room, but I didn’t blame them. I used my own exit to come and go, so the only times I left my room were to venture to the fridge in the basement. I’d grab my food and head right back to my room. Wash, rinse, repeat. But I heard them all in the house. Traipsing around. I heard the guys, too. They seemed to be here anytime the girls were, and after that one time of running into Lisa downstairs, I never saw her again. Her door remained shut at all times. And Gail called me two more times, but I didn’t pick up. And it wasn’t that I had to guess what she was calling about. She told me in great detail. In my voicemail. Both times. Lengthy messages. All about me calling Stone. Had I reached out yet? He had a Sunday game, was I watching it? She bet he’d give me tickets. She bet he’d give all my friends tickets, too. Apparently, Barb had told him I was here. Apparently, Barb had told him Charles gave his phone number to my dad, who gave it to Gail, who gave it to me. So apparently, Stone was waiting for me to call him. Or text him. Or even email, because she sent me his email address last night. I was getting a pounding headache from the constant reminders about Stone. My dad knew it was all bullshit. Why was he not stepping in? I was listening to another voice message from her when I walked into my room that night. My last class had been brutal. Intro to Marine Biology might’ve been titled an introductory class, but it was still an advanced one, and my head was swimming with all the different classifications of planktonic species. So it took me an hour to realize it was Friday night, and all I heard was nothing. It was completely silent upstairs. I almost felt like rejoicing and throwing a party of my own because I was certain they’d be living it up, but then I remembered. The football team had an away game tomorrow. That’s where they went. They must’ve traveled all together, so they took their party on the road. Thank God. That was…a flash of jealousy sliced through me, followed by other emotions, feelings I had no reason feeling, and I stuffed it all down. Completely. I stomped on it. With both feet. And I did a one-two-kick, then a jump and down again. It was pushed as far to the bottom as I could muster, and once my head was free, I figured it was the perfect night to indulge my solitude. Chipotle it would be. My phone rang as I was emptying out my backpack. Seeing an unknown number flash, I paused a second, then cursed at myself. How old was I? Twelve. Jesus. My stepmom was the only call I skirted, so I hit the accept button. “Hello?” “Is this… Dusty?” I sat up straighter. “Siobhan?” “Yeah!” A relieved laugh. “Sorry. I didn’t want you to think I’m a stalker, but I got your number from Dr. Anderson, not that she knows that. I really hope that’s okay?” I relaxed, slouching back down. “Oh, yeah. We should’ve exchanged numbers this week, anyway.” Our last class today had been a quiz, and once that was done, everyone shot out of there. The quiz had been brutal. “Um…” She got quiet. “So, why do I feel like I’m asking you out on a date?” A nervous hiccup. “Oh. Sorry. But, yeah. What are you doing tonight? Do you already have plans?” I eyed my keys and frowned. “To be honest, I was going to hit up Chipotle. That. That’s my exciting college life Friday night plans.” She laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t mind Chipotle myself, but want to head over here? My roommate and I were going to settle in for a movie marathon. We were thinking Harry Potter or Fifty Shades. We haven’t decided.” I was gripping my phone so tightly. “What? No football game?” “That’s tomorrow, isn’t it?” “Yeah.” “And no.” Her nervous hiccup was back. “We’re not big football watcher people. I mean, our lives are spent in biology labs. The most sporting things we do is trying to grab different kinds of fish to tag them. When it’s the weekend, we’re either studying or we’re relaxing. You know what I mean?” I didn’t, not yet, but I lied. “Yeah. Totally.” “We’ve got some wine here, too. You can sleep over, if you want. We have a super comfortable couch.” My decision was made. I didn’t have to force myself to be a lionfish. I stood, reaching for my keys. “What’s your address?” I picked up Chipotle for her, myself, and her roommate. They were supplying the place to hang out at and the wine, so the food was on me. I’d just skim back on a couple meals later that week. It was doable. The body was a great adapter, one or two missed meals wasn’t a big deal. So it was all worth it, and when I rang their bell, both were in Harry Potter pajamas and I knew I’d found my people. Her roommate’s name was Emily, and within ten minutes of the first movie, we were all fast friends. I’d been feeling guilty about ditching my roommates the other night, like maybe I was wrong to do it. Was I? My feelings got hurt. Dent didn’t even matter. Nicole. Savannah. I was thinking I’d been too quick to judge before I shut them down. Maybe? But I also couldn’t help but wonder…did they even notice I was gone? If they hadn’t noticed, then I had nothing to feel guilty about. But the last two days, I’d been thinking it was me in the wrong and I was the problem, yet here I was. I was sitting with a new friend and had made another friend, so maybe I wasn’t actually the problem. And that was making me feel all sorts of better. On a Friday night, no less. My phone rang right then. I knew without looking it was Gail, and I’d ditched her enough this week. I rose, gesturing to their patio with my phone. “Mind if I go out there to take this?” “No, no.” Siobhan waved a hand. “Go for it. We’ll pause and make some margaritas.” I only grinned. They had a whole discussion if they should indulge in wine or margaritas. Emily wanted margaritas. Siobhan wanted wine. Emily had won out, and she sent me a tiny grin and a thumbs up as she followed her roommate into the kitchen. Stepping outside, on the third ring I answered as I shut the door behind me. “Hello?” “Your stepmom has been harassing my mom.” A low, gravelly voice greeted me. I cursed under my breath. That’s what I get for not saving his number in my contacts. “Yeah,” he bit out. “Fucking A, Dust.” Dust. That pissed me off. He didn’t get to call me out of the fucking blue, then use that nickname he used when we actually were friends. Oh-to-the-hell-fuck-no. “Fuck you.” He was silent, hearing me, then a low and savage growl came from the other end. “Are you kidding me? Your stepmom has some delusion that you and I are fucking destined to be or something. Where’s she getting that piece of shit story?” He didn’t say it outright, didn’t point a finger in my direction, but I felt slapped in the face by his accusation anyway. I bit out, my blood boiling, “Trust me, asshole. It’s not because of me.” “Put her in her place. You and I, we ain’t anything. Got that?” “Abundantly.” And because I knew where he was going, and I was petty and I wanted to get there first, I hung up on him. Bastard. Then, a moment. I couldn’t breathe. Dust. Fuuuuuck him. We built a fort together. We played in the woods together and in the river that ran through both our properties. We had a whole maze put in place. I never did the dolls thing growing up. I was outside. Dirty. Rough. We played tag and we pretended to hunt shit. His dog was the friendliest German shepherd alive and he’d been horrible at protecting us. We pretended he was our guard dog anyway. My mom baked for us. His mom cooked for us. We were best friends until sixth grade, until puberty hit, and suddenly Stone was too fucking cool for me. Rage, long and deep, rose up in me, and grabbing ahold of the bannister, I bent over, letting out a scream like I’d never yelled before. Hearing a clambering behind me, I remembered where I was, and a whole new litany of curses flashed in my mind. I’d forgotten. Real shit and private shit just went public, and turning, wiping all of it away, I waved a hand with an awkward smile on my face. “I’m good,” I said as soon as the door opened again. “Sorry. Just an annoying call from home.” They both seemed concerned, but were polite about not being pushy. I could tell they were either weirded out by me, my reaction, or I don’t know what else, but the easygoing and carefree vibes of our Friday night was gone. My outburst of anger had ended that, so maybe it was me? All my problems with other people. Maybe I needed to really decide what I wanted? If I wanted friends, I might need to seek some professional help and figure out what I was doing wrong…or if I didn’t want friends, then I was good. I left halfway through the second movie, and when I say I left, I mean that I felt it was in the most awkward way ever. Emily and Siobhan seemed more relaxed when the first one ended. The margaritas might’ve helped, but there were quite a few sideways glances my way, and once during the second movie, Emily gave up all discreetness and openly stared at me. I knew right then that I needed to go. Saying my goodbyes, Siobhan walked me to the door. Emily remained on the couch, giving me a wave, but I could tell she was relieved I was going. I was crushing their Friday night chill sesh and I didn’t want to be responsible for that. “Dr. Anderson is doing a research study. I have to go to the marine lab and check on her seahorses tomorrow. You want to come with?” I almost did a double-take. “Are you serious?” Not because this was awkward, she wanted me to go, and why would she invite me for another outing? But in the way that I was already preening because she was talking about seahorses. The males were the ones who carried the eggs, and what other species did that? Also, they lived the life of mostly resting and eating, and well hiding, but seriously. Resting. Eating. The guys carried the babes. I was so in. Siobhan grinned. “Yeah. The little things are kinda cute. Then I was going to meet Trent at the Quail to study. Want to come to that, too? I figure we always have something we can be studying.” I almost had to take a step back. The Quail was the name of the campus pub, the one that I first thought was the only one on campus. Small. Cozy. I liked it immediately, but I hadn’t known the name. The Quail seemed fitting for some reason, and also, I raised an eyebrow. “Trent?” Her face went from a blush red to lobster red. She picked at her doorframe, her eyes jutting away. “Yeah. I mean. We’re friends. He’s a good guy.” “That’s the guy in our genetics class? The cute blond you sit by?” I hadn’t thought it was possible, but her face was getting even redder. I couldn’t stop myself from teasing. “The guy who looks like a six-foot-one model? Who wears glasses, but he has high cheekbones and he could be the definition of a gorgeous nerd? That Trent?” She was eyeing the air like she wanted a black hole to open up and she could step through it. “Yeah. Him.” I was starting to feel bad. “I’m just teasing. You know the guy is into you, right?” Her eyes swung to mine. “You think he is?” I nodded. “My knowledge might not be vast, but I can’t imagine a guy meeting a girl in a bar, on a Saturday night, wanting to study, unless he also wants to get in her pants.” Her eyes bulged out at that one. Her mouth puckered. Her lips moved, but no sound came. Then, quietly, “You think so?” It was like basic math. I only smiled softly. “I’m pretty sure. I thought he was your boyfriend.” “Oh my God.” “Whad’s going on over thrd?” Emily yelled from the couch. The slurring had commenced. “You’re going to have fun tonight with that one.” From me. “Hey.” Her tone got serious. Her eyes went past mine, and I was pretty certain it wasn’t on her roommate, but instead lingering on the patio. “From before. Are you okay?” I shrugged that off. The anger and resentment and all that annoying stuff was locked up tight. It was just carefree me who enjoyed teasing a new friend. I could do these next two years like this. Nothing would get in and hurt me that way. “It’s nothing. Just someone from back home.” “An old boyfriend?” I could almost hear Stone’s growl again. It would’ve been erupting at volcanic decibel levels at hearing that from her. I swallowed over a lump. “No. Just—family stuff.” “Oh.” Why did her smile turn sad after that? That wasn’t my intention. “Okay, but I know you’re new here and I don’t have a lot of friends myself, so I’m here. For anything. You know?” I knew. And I reached forward on an impulse, giving her a hug. She hugged me back, surprised at first, then clasped me back. “See you tomorrow then?” I stepped into the hallway. She nodded. “Yeah. I usually go around nine in the morning. Is that too early?” I had an empty house and I was usually knocked out by midnight. “I’ll probably already be up for an hour before that, so it’s perfect.” “Okay. I’ll text you where to meet me? Or I can pick you up?” Oh, shoot. Would she recognize the party house for who lived there? I didn’t think I was going out on a limb to worry about how Siobhan would think of my roommates. People like them and people like us didn’t mix, not if we had a healthy self-preservation instinct. My smile was tight. “I’ll meet you there. And then if you really want a tagalong tomorrow night, I’ll come, too, but only if you want a remora fish to tag along.” She laughed. “Okay. Sounds good. Though, that makes me the shark?” I began to walk down the hallway. “We can figure that out tomorrow.” I waved. “Okay. See you. I’ll text you in the morning.” She waved back. The house was dark when I got back, but for some reason it felt right to me. It was peaceful. And when I slid into bed, I was more than a little excited to see some seahorses in the morning. Then a text came through, and I rolled over, grabbing it. Unknown: This shit has to stop. Unknown: image attached I sat up, dread sinking low in my gut, and I clicked the image. It was a screen shot. Gail: We know what your family did to mine. If your son doesn’t reach out and make things right with my daughter, I’m going to the press. We have nothing to lose now, but you do, and your son does. How do you feel about that, Barb? I cursed. Even typing a threatening and crazy text and my stepmother was using perfect grammar. There had to be a joke in there. I hadn’t put Stone’s number in my phone, but I knew it was him, and I hit the call button. He answered with, “Call off your crazy stepmom. We will sue. And I don’t know what the fuck your stepmom is talking about, but my family did nothing to yours.” A surge of fury was rolling in my belly, but I waited. I counted to ten, and then I said through gritted teeth, “One. That’s not true. Two. I will call her, but not because you’re telling me to. Three. I also don’t know where she’s getting this idea from because trust me, dealing with you is the last thing I want.” After a beat. I clipped out, “Do me a favor? Lose my number.” I hung up on him. Again. And it felt damn good. Chapter Six The history with Stone wasn’t completely between him and me. It was more between his father and mine, or to be more accurate, between my dad’s employer and my father. The timing was all suspect, but my dad was the manager for their grocery store. Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer and we tried to keep it under wraps, but rumor got out, and within a week my dad was served his walking papers. While my dad was trying to find another job, my mom was about to start chemo when we lost our health insurance due to my father getting the boot. A month went by. Nothing. He wasn’t getting hired. Another month. Nothing. Three. Four. We were going on six months when finally, someone three towns over confided to a friend of a friend that word of mouth was saying not to hire Mitch Phillips. He’d been blacklisted by Stone’s dad. Why? We had no idea. We tried to find out the reason, but no one was fessing up until a friend of my mom’s overheard a man talking in the local bar. The guy was ranting about how Charles Reeves knew it was bad what he did, firing a man whose wife was just diagnosed with cancer, and he wanted to push the Phillips family out of town to stem any bad gossip. It backfired. This was all happening my senior year of school. Stone had gone on to join a D1 school and he was a rising football star, but he’d always been a superstar on the field. Another reason why Charles Reeves wanted to get my family out of town, in case media came sniffing around for a feel-good story about a local boy getting drafted by fancy colleges and maybe even the NFL down the road. He didn’t want us to give them a scandal instead, or so the gossip mill was saying. Because we were so in debt from the cancer treatments, we lost the house. We moved into an apartment close to the hospital so I could remain in school that last year, and then we found out three months later that the Reeves family bought our house and land from the bank for a steal. They renovated it into a local Airbnb. Stone scored the winning touchdown for his football championship game, and that night my mom died. We had spiraled so far into debt, there was no getting out for us. I don’t think anyone could fault my family for the resentment that we held for the Reeves family. I knew there was some on my part. I expected equal amount on my dad’s part. I hadn’t known there was some on Gail’s part. And the next day, after I went with Siobhan to check on some seriously cute seahorses, I knew the time for my phone call had come. I would’ve signed up for anything else instead of having to call Gail and deal with this. Even spending time with Stone. Gasp. Shrinks in horror, but yes. Even spending time with Stone would be preferable than doing this. All that said, I couldn’t stall anymore. If they were threatening a lawsuit, I knew they’d go through with it. They had money. We did not. They’d already almost buried us. I didn’t want to give them another chance to dig that shovel down any further into our despair. I wasn’t sure how much more we could take, so I was sitting in my car, in my parking spot behind the house, as I made the call. The house was still empty and I was assuming it would be until everyone returned the next day, or tonight, but I still didn’t want to chance being overheard. “Honey! What a pleasant surprise.” God. I ached inside. She was so happy. “Your father and I are just moving out to the patio with a cup of coffee. I know you’re off, pursuing your dream, but I was just wishing you were here. A phone call is the best surprise yet.” Christ. This was going to be hard. I closed my eyes, readying myself. “I got a phone call from Stone.” She was quiet on her end. I waited. I heard my dad ask, “What’d she say?” Still, she was quiet. Then, a soft, “Oh, honey. I didn’t want you to have to deal with that.” My voice was low, gravelly, like Stone’s had been. “He sent me the text you sent to Barb.” “Oh, dear.” That was so not what I wanted to hear. “Oh, dear?” I repeated her words to her. “What were you thinking?” “I thought since Stone is down there, and you’re there, and I’ve heard so many stories about how close the two of you were—” I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. Her words were twisting around in my head, mixing with my own memories, and all of it was bad. All of it was tainted. I could feel my mom. I could feel when her hand went slack. I was back there instead, in the room when she died, and Gail was on the phone instead of her. “Stop,” I yelled, my voice hoarse. I was so raw, so fucking raw. “Just. Stop.” My mom. She’d been there. Then she was gone. The chemo hadn’t worked. The cancer progressed too fast. I watched my mother die. “Dusty, honey.” My dad’s rough voice broke out, “Let me talk to her! I’ll handle this.” “No!” Gail snapped back with a voice I had never heard before from her. She said harshly, “You’ll make it worse.” Then she was back, and quieter, soft again. “Honey. I’m sorry. I just thought he’s down there. You’re there. I’ve seen you both suffer so much, and his family owes us. His family owes you.” “No!” I couldn’t stomach anymore. Gail came into the picture after my mom was buried. She heard the stories, and I was now realizing she’d been getting ideas that I did not want her to have. “Let me explain this.” I was speaking in a voice I had never heard before myself. My skin had been turned inside out. There was nothing to hide behind now. I felt like everything was scraped off of me. That’s what enduring that year had done to me. “You really need to hear me.” I waited. I needed a moment to gather myself. I felt like I was crumbling. “I hate Stone Reeves.” I heard her gasp on the other end. I kept on, “I hate him with a passion I didn’t even know I possessed, and I was already hating him long before what his father did to us. I moved down here because my mom told me to reach for my dreams. I moved down here because I went through something; well, something that taught me life is actually short and I need to be making decisions for me. And saying that, it was something that I hadn’t already learned through losing my mother. But having said that, life is not short enough where I would ever want Stone Reeves back in it.” She was sniffling now. I refused to. “Let it go. Let whatever notion you have in your head about how this is going to resolve itself because it’s not going to happen.” “But—” “He called me. He texted me. He said they’ll sue if you don’t stop. Gail, please. Don’t put my father and me through more pain.” I was there again, holding my mom’s hand. “I can’t survive another round with that family.” I felt her hand go, again. It was always again. Over and over again, and I worked so hard to push that memory away, but it was back. It was going to haunt me. “Please.” A whisper from me. I heard more sniffling on her end, and then a pause before she said, so quietly, “Okay.” I felt dead inside. “Tell my father I love him.” Then I hung up and texted Stone. Me: It’s done. I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I blocked his number. As far as I was concerned, Stone Reeves was out of my life for good. Chapter Seven Studying with Siobhan and Trent was more about drinking beer and avoiding the television because it was set to the football game. And watching the two of them flirt without really flirting, but both totally knowing they were flirting. It was fun to watch, but I was also cold to it. I didn’t like that I was like that, but I was. Romance. Sexual chemistry. Even the fun at the beginning, like what they’re going through right now, I was turned off to it. There was a firm wall built in me, and Siobhan whispered at one point that Trent had a roommate and if I was interested, he’d invite him out for me. She asked and nothing. Stone cold—crap. Wrong phrase. Deadness inside. That’s what I was, but I knew that wasn’t normal. I mean, it made sense to me why I was like that. The event I went through before coming here…yeah, my throat was swelling up. Emotions that I didn’t want to deal with swept up at a startling rate and I felt my throat choking up. I pushed it down. Another firm shove, just like with all the other uncomfortable and painful stuff. Fine. I’d be this way. But I’d fake it. I’d have to. Give me a course in marine mammals and I’d be happy as a clam. Offer to set me up, and full on arctic blast inside of me. No one likes someone who is apathetic to the excitement going on in their lives, though. That’s the problem. That wasn’t a good way to make and keep friends, and I wanted Siobhan to be my friend. I almost needed it, desperately. If I didn’t have one friend, then who was I and what was my purpose? I’d have to travel back to the worry from before that there was something truly unfixable about me. I gripped my glass just thinking about that, and glancing down, I thought belatedly that I needed to loosen my grip. My fingers were white. I was either going to shatter the glass, or I was going to break my fingers. One or the other. Expelling a harsh breath, I forced myself to stop thinking. That’s how I’d get through life right now. No thoughts about personal stuff. Just academia. Marine biology. I could recite the forty-four species of dolphins frontwards and backwards in my sleep, and I salivated over learning more. That was my goal. Eye on the prize. That’s what I’d do, and clipping my head in a firm nod to myself, feeling all rallied from my own pep-talk, I crossed the bar back to where Trent and Siobhan were leaning with their heads angled toward the other. Crap. Maybe I should make my exit? I told her I would if she gave me the word, but we’d never discussed what the code word would be. I tried to wordlessly ask Siobhan as I slid onto my stool, but she lifted her head up with a welcoming smile. And some relief. The lines around her mouth slackened at me coming back from getting a refill. Okay. I’d be staying a bit longer. “It’s picking up in here.” Trent was looking over my shoulder toward the door and the rest of the bar. We were in a corner, but I noticed the expanding crowd as well on the way back. A surge of customers came in just as I was getting my beer. Siobhan frowned. “Well, it is eight, and it’s the campus bar. The game probably finished and everyone’s making their way back into town.” Trent cursed, shoving up his glasses. He frowned. “You’re right. I forgot the first official game was today.” Siobhan explained to me. “The other bar is the normal hang-out when there’s an off campus game, and now this one will be at full capacity. The team usually comes back after and sometimes they stop here before going wherever they go. Both places will be swamped the rest of the night.” She was looking around. “I forgot. I mean, I knew, but I forgot.” Her eyes lingered on Trent a moment, almost apologetic. He looked, caught her, and both turned away quickly. I would’ve been amused, or felt I should’ve been amused, if I wasn’t thinking about how my house would probably be party central tonight. If the team was coming back, I knew my roommates would be, too. “Let’s get out of here!” My outburst surprised even me. Both blinked at me a moment, then Trent started grabbing his stuff. “I second that. We can go to my house. No football game. We can study, or…” he paused, his gaze warming and holding on Siobhan, “just hang out.” Her eyes got wide. “Is your roommate there?” Her quick glance my way told me what she was thinking and shit, damn, fuck. I didn’t need that. I was so beyond needing that. Panic and claustrophobia and sheer terror rained down on me, and I had to stop. I had to breathe. I had to remain for a second, and then, another moment. It was still with me. I was paralyzed, but I knew my face didn’t show it. I’d perfected that bit over the last year. He couldn’t see me scared. I never gave him the satisfaction. I wouldn’t give anyone the satisfaction, and then I wasn’t there anymore. I was back at the Quail and I was in a college five states away. I. Could. Be. Just be. The cement grip that overtook me loosened and I blinked. I was past it, and I was the only one not putting my stuff in my bag. “You gonna drink that?” Siobhan referenced my drink. Drink. Alcohol. Right. “Can I ride with you?” “Yeah. Sure.” I downed my beer. All of it. A full sixteen-ounce glass. Even Trent looked taken aback. A guy next to our table whistled, “Way to go! You open that throat, baby.” I reacted without a thought, snarling at him, “Shut the fuck up.” And sweeping my stuff into my bag, I was off my stool and ready to go. The guy’s face was clouding with anger, but he’d been there the whole time we were. He’d been drinking and watching the football game, and I knew he was too slow to react. And I’d been paying attention to his entire table in the back of my mind because that’s what someone like me does. We pay attention. And once I got to my feet, I could see the words forming. He started to reach out. Nope. Not today. I evaded him, but then he had my bag. He wasn’t thinking clearly, and to an extent, past haunts were clouding my own thoughts, so I didn’t hesitate to twist out from my bag, then bring my elbow down hard on his arm. He dropped the bag. I caught it, and before he could react to that, I stomped down hard on his foot. He howled, grabbing for it, but that brought his head to the table, and he cursed again. His buddies were dumbfounded. Two started to get up, but I pointed at them and clipped out, “Not a move. He made an offensive remark. I replied. Then he grabbed me. I defended myself. You say one word, I’ll call the cops and I have witnesses and video to back me up.” I snapped my fingers, pointing to the corners of the ceiling. There were no video cameras there, but there were televisions, and the guys would be too confused to investigate. Trent and Siobhan were almost gawking behind me. I didn’t wait. I’d handled this scene stronger than I should’ve and I knew the quicker you got free, the better. I got free. Siobhan and Trent stared at me outside the bar, both with owl-like expressions. Eyes blinking. Mouth pursed tight. I didn’t like that I’d done that. I showed a side of myself I didn’t like to expose. Coming here, five states away, was to start new. Not remember the old me. Me reacting to that guy just now, that was the old me. And I really didn’t want to get into why I had to be that way in the past. No way. No how. No, siree. “That beer’s going to hit me in about two minutes. Can I still ride with you?” Siobhan jerked awake, startling forward. “Yeah. Uh. My car’s over here.” “Sha, you know how to get to my place?” She was crossing the parking lot but nodded. “I remember. Last Biofest, remember?” Trent’s face brightened. “Oh, yeah! I forgot. Yeah, okay. See you guys there. AJ’s there. You can ring up. I might stop and grab a few things on the way.” I noticed the little grin on Siobhan’s face as we got to her car and got inside. And because I knew a friend would say it, I teased, “He’s getting a few things. Like condoms?” “Shut up!” But she was blushing and blushing hard. Starting and reversing out of the parking spot, she moved around until we were following Trent out of the parking lot. She waited until a stoplight before muttering, “Besides, I’m not that kind of girl.” “What kind? The kind who likes sex?” Back to the blushing. She was full-on red sea star. “You know.” She moved around in her seat, her cheek suddenly pulling in. “The kind who has sex on the first night.” “How long have you known Trent?” “It’s not the same thing.” I wasn’t following. This I wasn’t faking. I said it almost tenderly, “Having sex with someone you have feelings for, no matter how many hours you’ve spent together, isn’t a bad thing.” She swallowed, shoving upright in her seat. Her hands tightened on the wheel. “It is if he thinks you’re a slut after.” The question wasn’t if she knew a guy who’d do that. Guys did that. It was a question if she thought Trent would do that. “For what it’s worth, I’m pretty certain, and by certain I mean I’m like 99.8% sure that Trent is completely into you.” I nudged her arm, lightly. “I get the double standards, but if you like sex and you like Trent, then what’s really stopping you? I’ve known relationships that start that way. And honestly, life’s too short to worry about that stuff.” A gnawing and hollow ache was forming in my chest, rooting and digging deep in there. My words hitting a little close to home. I continued, faint even to my own ears, “French angelfish love should be cherished. Indulge while you can still feel those emotions.” Yes, I was talking about myself. Yes, I wish I could feel that again. But yes, I believed in what I said. You never knew when your time was up. Then what would you do? Die with regrets of not trying something? That’d be worse than dying having tried and been rejected. Who cared about rejection? That stuff was never remembered. But not living, that was remembered till someone’s death bed. “Live, Sha.” I used his nickname on purpose. “Regret will eat you alive if you don’t.” She was quiet, then burst out laughing. “Okay. Yeah. Where’d that philosophical side come from? And it’s not for sure that French angelfish mate for life, you know.” I half grinned. “That’s my side major. Deep thinker here. Didn’t you know? And let’s just go with the analogy, yeah?” She thought I was half-joking. I wasn’t. Chapter Eight Siobhan and Trent played footsie all night. Literally. We went to his apartment. Those two started on the couch together, their feet touching, while we watched a movie. Then we moved to their kitchen table with some wine poured and a game of Sequence. They sat across from each other, but the sly looks, flushed faces, and hushed giggling mixed with the constant squirming on their seats told me if they didn’t get it on that night, they were idiots. Or that I’d be in for a looong semester with them. AJ wasn’t anything like Trent. A dad-bod, more than a dad-bod with a cut-off tee that had ‘Trees are old. Go digital.’ and hair that was sticking up in an almost adorable way, he was my cosigner on how Trent and Siobhan were cute, but verging on the line of being annoying. I caught him watching them, a slight grin, but a slight grimace at the same time. The two weren’t hiding it anymore, and when I said my goodbyes after two games of Sequences, I was wondering if Siobhan was going to follow my advice and just live. Either way, I figured I’d get a call the next day or an earful on Monday in class. I was looking forward to both. Feeling good that I had a friend, at least one, my mood didn’t diminish when I got to the house to find a full party going. The house was busy, literally every room except mine had light streaming from the windows. The backyard light was dimmed, but a group of ten or so was standing around the picnic table. I recognized Mia and heard Nicole laughing as I walked past them, heading to my door. None of them looked at me. Well, glancing over, I was wrong. Dent was eyeing me, but his arm was around Nicole’s shoulders and she was half in his lap. One of her legs was thrown over his and her hand was splayed out on his chest. As I watched, his hand slid down around her back, cupping the other side of her hip so he was half-cradling her to him now and his head was bent down to hers. I just kept going, but as I went down the stairs to my door and unlocked it, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d acted too quickly the other night at the bar? If I should’ve stuck it out, sat with them longer? Nicole technically hadn’t done anything to me. Just Mia and Lisa had been bitches, but Sav and Nicole hadn’t. Remembering my own advice, I figured what would it hurt? Be nice. Apologize for ditching. I mean, they could laugh at me and do exactly the reasons why I left in the first place, but it wasn’t sitting well with me. Maybe invite them to meet for lunch on campus, or at the very least, a coffee somewhere. Even just sitting and having a coffee at the house together, except the problem is that I didn’t feel comfortable venturing upstairs, and neither of them came down to the basement. I heard Lisa slam her door every now and then, always followed with her stampeding feet up the stairs as if she couldn’t get away from being on the same floor as me fast enough. With her and Mia, I definitely hadn’t acted too harsh or quick, but still, with Sav and Nicole another try was warranted. Tomorrow. I’d do it tomorrow. I was determined to tune out the yelling from the room next to me. They must’ve had a pool game going because I kept hearing ‘Eight ball, motherfucker.’ But, making sure my door was locked — I’d even went as far to add an extra chain lock on my door during the week — I turned my fan on full blast. It was a box fan, rivaling ones that could be in a barn (not really, but I liked to pride myself that I’d found a gem like that), but I was fooling myself, I was too jacked up to head to bed. Opening my laptop, plugging in my headphones, I typed in Texas C&B job classifieds. I’d been putting off finding a job all week, but my bank account was dwindling every day and I’d skipped lunch today to use my money for beer at the Quail. Thank God they had a two dollar tap deal until eight. Trent and AJ had brought out a charcuterie board of meat, cheese, crackers, and dip back at their place. There were other things on there, along with chips and salsa and yes, I ate to my heart’s content. I knew I had enough money for a couple things of ramen the next day, so I was taking advantage of their excellent hosting skills. My full belly greatly appreciated it, but yes. Back to the matter at hand. I needed a job. I couldn’t put it off anymore, so I was searching the classifieds. There was a lab assistant job, but reading more on it, it looked like it was for a graduate student. No-can-do for me, then. At least, not yet. I kept going. A library aide. I’d done that job before, and while I loved books, I knew I’d hate it. I’d gotten a look at the staff in there this week, and they were a whole new level of stuck-up. Serious. Sometimes you ran into that, where they looked down on people who read outside what was considered the greatest literary works of arts like Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace. Don’t get me wrong, those books were amazing, but there were novels and even textbooks outside the ‘literary masterpieces’ that were equally as enjoyable, too. But that wasn’t a literary battle I wanted to take on, so I kept looking. Kitchen attendants. Janitorial staff. A custodian position. I wasn’t sure the difference between the last two. A babysitter/nanny job, but looking more into it…they wanted longer hours than I could promise. And I’d have to be available during my classroom times. Tech support. Tech assistant. Tech internships. Maybe I was picking the wrong major? I kept on until between the experience needed and the hours they were asking for, either weekends or evenings, I was down to two positions. A barback or waitressing job at the Quail or I could work concessions at the sporting events. I clicked on the applications because I’d have to try for both. If I got one of them, I’d be happy. If I got both, I’d be ecstatic. They said their hours were flexible, would ‘work with student schedules’, so I was hoping they weren’t lying like on my room rental details, because as I was filling out the applications, I was completely lying. Yes, I did, in fact, have an iota of job experience. Which was true, somewhat. I’d volunteered for a few bake sales. And yes, the time I bagged for a very short term, like a week, at Stone’s parents’ store before we became enemies might’ve been a lot shorter than I was admitting. It was for a college position. I had a feeling they wouldn’t be too picky, or I was hoping. With that task checked off my to-do list, after that, I got ready for bed. Hearing a couple thuds in the wall and loud voices, I opted for falling asleep with my headphones on and my music blasting. Let’s face it, at this rate I’d be deaf by the end of this semester. “You worked at Reever’s Market?” The Quail moved fast, calling me the next day and scheduling a job interview. I was sitting in the empty bar, an hour before it was open and luckily right smack in the break between two of my classes. I had exactly forty minutes for my early lunch, but I used my meal plan to fill up on breakfast for the day so I could take this interview. I was allowed one meal per day, which I was now kicking myself. I should be taking advantage of what I was paying for over the weekend, too. I’d forgotten that it was for seven days a week, not five. Note to self: become one with the freshman. The guy, he introduced himself as Joe, who had called and met me this morning was bald, with a round face, dimples in his cheeks, and a solid, athletic build. He was maybe five feet nine, but I was emphasizing the solid part. His biceps bulged as he held his notes in his hands as he moved them closer to the tabletop. “Yes.” Had they called and checked up on me? I listed the manager as my reference, but I knew that manager wasn’t working there anymore. She’d liked me, said I was a good bagger for the week I’d been there. Hell. Would she even remember me? I took the job when I was first starting my teenage work career, and my hours had been low because it was during the time period where it was before you could legally even work. But once I hit sixteen, I got a full-time job at the local nursing home. My skills at turning down beds and collecting laundry had come in handy when my mom had her stint in the hospice facility years later. “You know that’s the same place that Stone Reeves’ parents own, right?” Understanding flooded me. He was almost glaring at me, and I got it then. He thought I was lying, that I put that on purpose. If only he’d known it was the other way around. I sat up straighter, feeling my entire back and neck muscles tighten. “I wasn’t aware you knew that.” “He’s a football god here in town. I’m a dude. I’m an athlete, too. You think I wouldn’t know that?” His eyes turned cold and he put his notes down. “Are you lying on the application to get this job?” I sucked in my breath. The preposterousness of that whole statement. Lying? Me? Maybe over-exaggerated, but full-out lying… Okay. I did. Well. I bent the truth, a lot. But I had enough truth on my side to murmur and not feel bad about it, “To be honest, I was hoping you wouldn’t know they’re the owners.” His eyes got dark, then I saw the hope starting to light up. “I see what you’re thinking, and I have to stop you before you even get started.” His eyes went flat and his mouth turned down. “I never met Stone. I know of him, how could you not going to our school together? But he was always in football camps and he was a different year than me.” I was hoping he wouldn’t do the math. Stone got drafted by Texas as soon as he could, which was a year ago. And if this guy was decent with numbers, he’d connect that I was younger than Stone. It wasn’t hard, but I hadn’t put that I was a transfer junior on the application. I pushed on, “And I don’t really know his parents. I gave you the number for my manager. She’s the one I worked with the most. She’d remember me. Stone—” Shit! I caught myself. “Mr. and Mrs. Reeves wouldn’t even remember me, but I did work there.” He stared at me, long and hard. I didn’t move. I was afraid if I did, he’d either not buy my story or call my bluff. I didn’t want to deal with the fallout of that, but after another thirty seconds of both of us sitting frozen in place, he nodded and looked back down to his notes. “Okay. I got ya.” I exhaled so sharply that I had to quickly suck it right back in. Gah! What would he think then? It’d be obvious I was holding my breath. He looked back up and I coughed, smoothing a hand over my hair. I was fine here. Nothing to see. His eyes passed over me, and I was glad to report he’d lost all interest. His tone was even monotone now, “Tell me more about your job experience. Starting with your most current job.” Well, that was easy. If it was ever a question if I was a good worker or not, I always aced it. Just had to get in the door first, compliments of my over-exaggeration skillz. Chapter Nine “YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!” The screaming jerked me upright. I’d been awake, lying in bed and reading about population dynamics of Asteroidea. Eavesdropping was bad. So was gossip. Overhearing roommate drama, bad move. I was going anyway. Easing my door open, the basement was dark. Lisa’s door was closed, though that didn’t tell me if she was in the house or not. She was still avoiding me like the plague, but I moved through the game room, closer to the stairs. “Wyatt! OMG! Don’t!” It was Mia screaming. “What is going on?!” That was Nicole, so she was home, and she was annoyed. “Nothing. It’s nothing!” Feet stomped over my head, they were coming close to the kitchen doorway. The basement door must’ve been left open, or I wouldn’t be able to hear so well. Lisa must’ve been up there because no one else would come down here. “Hey! What the hell.” “It’s nothing.” A more calmer Wyatt, but he was restraining himself. I could almost imagine him gritting his teeth. “It’s not nothing!” And I could imagine Mia tossing her hair, throwing her hand to her hip. “My God. Calm down. You guys were fine a minute ago.” “That was before he—” Silence. I didn’t know what she was doing, but I could hear her huffing. “—started lecturing me on reaching out to Char, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Guys are different. There’s no beef. They all fight and get over it—” “Not completely,” a low mutter from Wyatt, but still calm. I was giving him props for that. “We compartmentalize more. Will I probably need to see this dude again in the future? If yes, get over it. If no, then throw a punch. Or throw a punch no matter the answer. Sometimes that’s just more fun, but you never know. Some guys lately are weasels—” “Wyatt!” “Right. You don’t care about what I’m saying.” He sighed, now I heard his irritation. “What a surprise. Nothing new there.” “What does that mean?” And judging by how snippy her tone turned, I could imagine her crossing her arms over her chest. Maybe a defiant tilt of her chin to complete the look? “Mia.” He was trying to smooth things over, but I heard the creak of a foot above. He was going toward her. His voice was calm, almost too calm. I couldn’t have remained calm like him in that situation. “You are hurt by your friend. Char left you, she left everyone, and all I’m saying—” “What?! That I’m being a bitch?!” “Christ’s sake.” He snapped back, “You ARE!” I heard an audible gasp. Mia’s? Nicole’s? It was the name game. “Wyatt. Dude. Maybe—” “No! She’s being a bitch, and instead of picking up the fucking phone and chewing out the friend she should be chewing out, I’ve had to listen to her all fucking week talk shit about someone she doesn’t even know.” A sick laugh from Mia. “Yeah. Right. I don’t need to know the reject roommate to know a few things about her. She’s—” My heart sank. She was talking about me. This whole thing was about me. What the hell? “YOU DON’T KNOW HER!” My heart picked back up at Wyatt’s roar. He kept on, “You don’t know her! You have no idea if she’s nice or mean or poor or anything. You have no clue, except it’s obvious she’s quiet because you never know if she’s here and she’s fucking desperate. Why the hell would someone stay in the situation with you and Lisa actively hating her unless she had nowhere else to go.” A pause. “And she’s not heard eighty percent of the bullshit you’ve been spewing about her.” “WHY IS THIS YOUR PROBLEM?!” “BECAUSE I DON’T WANT A HATEFUL FUCKING MEAN GIRLFRIEND!” Wyatt’s stock just skyrocketed to me. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard him. But hearing Mia had remained on the Hate New Roommate Train wasn’t a surprise to me. Just confirmed everything I’d been feeling, and to think I almost considered trying again with them. “She ditched Nicole and the group,” Mia was still trying, but she was losing some of her momentum. “What kind of person does that? I mean, that’s so mean and rude and disrespectful. Nicole didn’t have to invite her at all in the first place.” “Yeah. You know, it was kind of shitty what she did, but put yourself in her shoes. She told Savannah she had driven across the nation to come here. She told Savannah she didn’t know anyone else in town. You are a bitch to her within two seconds of stepping inside this new place. You’re surrounded by all your friends. She’s alone. She was set up by Char, too, and yeah, that was an insanely bitchy move on Char’s part, but it’s Char. Then, what I hear is that Lisa was a bitch to her. Sorry, but I’d probably ditch, too, because you never know when the tide is going to turn.” Silence. Total and complete silence. Then, a hiccupping sob. “I’m not a mean person.” “No, you’re not, but yo