I closed my text book with a loud snap and checked the time on my cell phone. I groaned when I saw that I had been studying for almost four hours and still had what felt like a mountain of homework left. Teagan had cautioned me about taking so many classes my first semester but I had been stubborn. I wanted to get the basic courses out of the way as soon as possible. As I looked at the books and papers scattered around me, however, I found that I wished I had listened.
Not that I’d ever admit that to him, of course.
I braced my elbows on my disk and dropped my head into my hands with a sigh. It was late and I was exhausted but nowhere near being done for the night. I glared at the mess that surrounded me and prayed that it would all spontaneously combust and I wouldn’t have to deal with it any longer. As per usual, it didn’t happen. It never did when I needed it to. The idea of possibly using Zver eating my homework as an excuse crossed my mind, but was just as quickly discarded. No one would ever believe that one.
I sat back in my seat and stretched my arms up and behind my head with a yawn. The rush of the blood flowing back through my muscles almost made me dizzy. I let my head drop back to rest on the chair and closed my eyes for a moment as I waited for the sensation to pass. I knew part of the problem was the lack of food. The empty energy drinks accumulated beside me didn’t help. It was probably time to go forage for some sort of sustenance as I hadn’t eaten since lunch. However, that required movement on my part. That wasn’t happening in the foreseeable future and I found that I was all right with that.
“So, this is where you hang out after eleven on a Tuesday night?”
I jumped with a scream at the unexpected interruption and would have fallen backwards in my chair had the person behind me not grabbed it and kept it upright. I leapt to my feet and quickly put space between us, nervous and suddenly very aware of the time. All of Teagan’s and Mom’s warnings flashed through my head and the anxiety amped up even more.
“Hey, are you OK?”
Just as I was about to work myself up into a good old-fashioned panic attack, the voice registered. I forced myself to take a deep breath and focus on the guy standing next to my chair. He watched me with a concerned frown that was returned with a frown of my own.
“All right,” he said as his frown deepened, “I’ll ask again, are you OK?”
I gaped at him in disbelief, but recovered quickly. “Seriously? Ryan, you scared the crap out of me! Why’d you sneak up like that?” I demanded.
“What? I – wait a second! I didn’t ‘sneak-up’ on you, sweetheart!” He exclaimed. “You’re in the middle of the student center!”
OK, so he had a point. I wouldn’t let him know that, though. I suspected that Mr. Grabby would be like Connor; you’d never live it down if you admitted he was right. I settled for putting my hands on my hips and glaring at him. My eyes narrowed when he began to smirk. “What?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged, then grinned. “Except it’s killing you that I’m right.”
I gave him a flat look before beginning to gather up my books and papers. He watched me in silence for a minute before he picked up one of my texts and started flipping through it. At his low whistle I glanced at him with a raised eyebrow. He gave me a tight grin.
“Impressive,” he said in a low voice. “Calculus with Analytic Geometry isn’t a class most freshman take.” He gave me a considering look. “Were you some sort of honors student or something?”
My eyes flew up to his as I paused in my packing. I studied him, trying to determine if he was mocking me or not. He met my stare with a quirked eyebrow. I took in his baggy shorts, t-shirt and how he stood there so self-confident and went with the mocking option. Leaning over, I snatched the math book from him and stuffed it into my book bag.
“Hey! That was unnecessary!” He pointed at me with a frown. “You, Aislinn, have a bad attitude.”
I snorted at that but kept my eyes on the table, steadily gathering my things.
“You’re ignoring me, aren’t you?” When I didn’t respond, he threw his hands up. “I can’t believe it! Sweetheart, no one ignores me!”
I picked up the last of my things, grabbed my trash and headed toward the door. I had promised Teagan I wouldn’t stay out late; he was going to be ticked when I called him. He didn’t work weeknights often, but when he did he’d wait for me to call him in case I feel asleep or happened to be studying. I debated just telling him in the morning, but discarded that idea just as quick. I couldn’t lie to him; it was a promise we’d made and I’d keep it.
“Hey! Aislinn! Wait up!” Ryan called out as I exited the center. I paused long enough to throw away my trash before continuing on through the heavy double doors. The hot humid night air wrapped itself around me as I hurried down the lit walkway. Behind me the doors slammed shut again and heavy footsteps followed. Before I could react, Ryan appeared beside me and matched my pace.
“Sugar, you’re an idiot,” he stated firmly.
That pulled me up short and I stopped and shot him a glare. He continued for several steps before he realized that I wasn’t beside him anymore. He turned and looked at me, puzzled. “What’s wrong? Why’d you stop?”
“You’re an ass!” I blurted.
He frowned at me. “How am I an ass?”
My jaw dropped at the question. I stared at him in shock for a long minute. It took that long for me to realize and accept that he was genuinely confused.
“You called me an idiot!” I gestured to him and gave him a dirty look. “Why? Because I won’t pant after you like all the other girls on campus?”
He stared at me for about half a second before he burst into laughter. I stared at him in consternation as he doubled over and braced his hands on his knees as he laughed. As his amusement continued, my pride shredded and I made to move around him. He reached out and grabbed my arm and halted me.
“No, Aislinn,” he said after he caught his breath. “You’re an idiot for walking the campus alone at this hour of the night.”
I felt my face heat up as embarrassment flooded me.
“Being the good Southern boy that my mama raised me to be,” he stopped and glared at my snort before he continued, “I’ll escort you wherever you’re going.”
I opened my mouth to protest but he held up a finger to stop me. “Uh-uh! You went to Freshman Orientation. Buddy system, remember? So, where you headed?”
I twisted my arm out of his grasp with a huff and stood there as my options flashed through my mind. Unfortunately, he was right; it wasn’t safe to wander around alone at night. But, I didn’t know Ryan, either. He was just some guy in my language class. My indecision must have shown.
“I don’t have to take it when I can get it handed to me somewhere else, you know,” he said blandly.
I scowled. “You’re just full of yourself, huh?”
“Meh.” He shrugged. “Just stating a fact. So again, where are you going?”
He was so blasé about it that it pulled a shocked bark of laughter from me. He responded with a wink then stood to the side and waved a hand. “After you.”
I shook my head with a smile then started walking again. As I passed him he fell in beside me with an expectant look. A raised eyebrow had him chuckling. I rolled my eyes in annoyance and walked a little faster to the parking lot where my car was. I all but jogged up to it and had my key already unlocking the door before Ryan caught up to me.
“You are a feisty one, aren’t you?” He grunted.
I opened my door and tossed my things in then turned to face him. As I looked at him, I was once again reminded of how attractive he was. From the way his hazel eyes sparkled with amusement, the thought must have conveyed on my face. It just served to reinforce what Teagan had been saying all of the past months. I tossed him a look and then got in my car. He reached out and blocked it from closing as he leaned down toward me.
“Night, sweetheart,” he told me then grinned. “Just so you know, not following me around like the others doesn’t make you an idiot.” He moved a bit closer, so close that I could smell his crisp cologne. “It makes you intriguing.” He stood up and with a wink, closed my door and then gave my roof a tap before he backed away. He gave a final wave then turned and walked off across the lot.
I could only sit behind the wheel in dazed shock as I wondered what in the hell had just happened.
The shrill sound of my alarm woke me with a startled jolt. I reached out from under my covers and felt around my nightstand, blindly searching for the offensive destroyer of sleep. When I couldn’t feel it I poked my head out from the covers and squinted while I tried to find the alarm. I knew that each second spent looking for was another moment that hurtled me toward full wakefulness. Therefore, it was sheer desperation that had me throw off my blanket and sit up bed while I lost the warmth and comfort I found there.
I glanced around my room, my eyes searching out where the ear bleeding sound came from. My eyes narrowed when I saw that it was now on my dresser when it had been on my nightstand the night before. I scowled as I surveyed the distance from my bed to the dresser while I pushed my hair out of my face impatiently. With that movement I felt the last wisps of sleep drift away and glared at the happily ringing clock opposite of me. Someone was going to pay for this. They would pay dearly. One did not mess with my sleep and simply get away with it.
I threw my legs over the side of my bed and sat there, slouched over and ticked off for a moment. The sound had officially reached grating levels and I shoved myself to my feet before I stalked over to my dresser. When I got to it I snatched it up with a growl and slammed my hand on the button on the top. Of course, this did not make it stop. I stared at it in bemusement before the reality of the situation hit me.
I was now wide awake.
I started beating on the alarm clock as I swore, desperate to get it to stop. When those attempts failed, I opened a dresser drawer, threw it in with my socks and then slammed the drawer closed. I grunted in satisfaction and turned to go back to bed when my door was flung open. I jumped in surprise then narrowed as I blonde whirlwind entered my room.
“Go away, Annie,” I grumbled as I started back toward my bed. “It’s too early for you right now.”
My roommate laughed as she bounded over to the bed and sprawled across it. “Nope! We have class in an hour. Time to get ready.”
I eyed her as a suspicion began to take form. “Did you move my alarm?”
She gave me a cheeky grin as she sat up. “Yes, I did! I knew you wouldn’t get up otherwise. You didn’t come home until after midnight.” She winked at me before continuing. “That sexy Lacrosse player keeping you out again?”
It was no secret that Annie had a bit of a crush on Teagan. However, unlike most of the female population on campus, she admired from a distance. It was never awkward and we actually joked about it. But right now, I was tired and cranky. I rolled my eyes at her question and stalked over to the closet. I yanked open the door and grabbed whatever was the closest to me.
“No, he didn’t,” I tossed over my shoulder. “I was at the center studying.”
“Why didn’t you just study here?” She asked with a confused frown. I turned in surprise but swallowed the sharp retort I’d had planned when I saw genuine puzzlement in her blue eyes. I offered her a tight smile instead.
“It was just too hard to concentrate. There were too many people here,” I explained. I had a hard time focusing when there was a lot of noise around me. Annie’s study group that she tutored had been over and the racket was too much for me. I wasn’t about to complain though. The tutoring was how Annie made her money for bills.
Annie stood up and frowned. “Why didn’t say something? I can move the group to someplace else!” She shoved a hand through her hair and huffed a deep breath. “We’ll switch where we meet up, OK?”
I shook my head then sighed. “No. Don’t do that. I don’t mind going someplace else. You could end up losing clients if you change where you meet.”
“But, Ash! You didn’t get home until late! It’s not safe to be out alone on the campus,” she protested.
I shrugged. “I wasn’t alone. Ryan walked me to my car.” I finished gathering up my things and was about to walk out my bedroom door when I saw that she had a weird look on her face. “What?”
She shook her head quickly and blinked. “Hold up,” she said while she pointed at me. “Who’s Ryan?”
“Ryan Caldwell,” I tilted my head and looked at her. “You know, Mr. Grabby from my Russian class?”
“What the -,” she broke off with an exasperated look. “The Ryan Caldwell is in your class? And he walked you to your car?”
I shot her a look. “Yeah. Why?”
“I’ve heard all about him on campus. It seems he’s the number one player around, both on and off the football field.” She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I bet Teeg isn’t happy about any of that. What have you told him about it?”
I wrinkled my brow in confusion. “Why would he have a problem with Ryan walking me to my car? He was just being nice!”
Annie studied me for a second before comprehension hit her and she gasped. “Oh my God! You haven’t told him yet!” She uncrossed her arms and pointed at me with a stern look. “You need to tell him, Ash. Ryan always has a motive from what I hear, so let Teeg know before the rumors start,” she stated.
I help up a hand in an attempt to placate her. “OK, OK! I’ll tell him when I see him tonight. God!” I looked at the clock and had to do a double-take. “Crap! I need to go get ready!”
She waved me off with a grin. “I’ll talk to you later!”
I smiled at her and raced off to get ready, all the while Annie’s words echoed through my head. She was right. I needed to tell Teagan what was going on as quickly as possible. Teagan trusted me, but I didn’t want him to think I was keeping anything from him. I’d talk to him about it tonight.
“So,” I heard Teagan say from behind me. “I heard you had a date last night.”
I spun around and gaped at him in disbelief. “Are you kidding me? The rumors started already?”
Teagan eyed me before leaning over to drop his lacrosse gear down on the floor. He straightened up and gave me a tight smile. “Oh, yeah,” he drawled. “I was told all about it at practice.”
I winced and offered him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry! I was going to tell you about it tonight when I got to your place.” I groaned. “That is not what happened!”
His lips thinned as he raised a hand to scratch at his chin. He heaved a sigh before he reached out and pulled me to him. The sounds of the student center faded away and everything in me became focused on the man in front of me. He reached up and tucked a lock of stray hair behind my ear before he traced along my jaw with his thumb. “I know you weren’t doing anything. But Ryan’s a dick and he has a worse reputation than mine was here. Be careful, Aislinn,” he cautioned.
I nodded. “I will be. I promise.”
He smiled slightly before he lowered his head to mine and gave me a long kiss. Just like always I found myself lost in him and the moment. He gave my top lip a last lick before he pulled away. I clung to him, his practice shirt fisted tight in my hand. I opened my eyes to find him giving me a small grin.
“I love you,” he murmured.
I felt myself break out into a huge smile at the words. “I love you, too.”
He tightened his hold on me briefly before he released me and stepped back. “You coming over tonight?” He asked as he leaned down to grab his gear.
I nodded. “I’ll be there after work.”
“Ok, baby.” He ran his fingers lightly down my face. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours. Bring clothes for tomorrow.”
I raised an eyebrow at that one. “Yeah? Why?
He smirked. “Just bring the clothes, woman,” he teased.
I laughed and pushed him toward the door. “Whatever, ass! I’ll see you in a little bit. I love you!” I called out as he stepped away.
“I love you, too,” he responded. He slipped on his sunglasses, flashed me a cocky grin and then exited the building. I shook my head as he left and turned back toward the bookstore where I was working.
“You and Aldridge, huh?”
I groaned at the sound of the voice behind me. I turned with a scowl to see Ryan giving me a contemplative look. At his continued silence, I gave a huff of impatience and pushed past him. With a frown, he turned and fell in step beside me. I bristled as I felt his continued focus on me. I stalked over to the counter and grabbed up the text books that were waiting for me to reshelf.
It amazed me how much clean up took place in a bookstore.
Ryan followed me around the store as I put books away and tidied up. I finally accepted that ignoring him wasn’t going to work and whirled around to give him a glare. “What?” I snapped.
He studied me for a moment then smirked. “You didn’t answer me,” he said. “You and Aldridge are dating, huh?” He gave me an expectant look.
“Yeah. Why?” I asked in annoyance.
“Just didn’t think that Aldridge’d ever settle with just once chick is all,” he replied with a shrug. “You have to understand the shock factor there.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “People can change, you know!” I defended.
“Sure, sweetheart. Whatever you say,” He placated with a smirk. “So, you ever go to football games?” He asked, changing the subject.
“I haven’t even had a chance to go to one of my boyfriend’s games,” I replied, placing heavy emphasis on the boyfriend part. “Why would I go to a football game?”
“Not a sports groupie, eh?” He gave me an appraising glance. “You just get more and more intriguing, Aislinn Munroe.”
I rolled my eyes at that. “Hardly,” I scoffed. “I’m anything but.”
The gleam that appeared in his eyes made me nervous. “Teeg wouldn’t settle with and date just anyone,” he countered. “No, there’s definitely more to you than you let on.” He paused and tilted his head while he considered something. “Yeah, I think I need to figure out the Aislinn puzzle.”
“Um, no,” I told him firmly, ignoring the funny feeling in my chest. “There’s nothing for you to figure out. You can go away now.” I made a shooing motion with my hand. “Go on. There’s nothing here for you.”
He chuckled while he shook his head. “OK,” he said while holding up his hands. “I’ll go for now.”
I shot him a look that I know spoke volumes. Especially, if his grin was anything to go by. The fact that he seemed completely unbothered by my rebuff did not go unnoticed. I knew that this time I’d have to tell Teagan immediately.
“It’s all right, sugar,” his southern accent drawled out. “I get it. Don’t want to upset the boyfriend.” He leaned toward me. “I don’t poach on another man’s property.” He straightened up and started walking backwards. The relief I felt at his words and actions were short-lived, however. “It’s not poaching when they come to me,” he finished with a confident grin. “See you in class tomorrow!”
As my jaw dropped, he left the bookstore. My hands gripped the paperback book in my hands so tight that I knew it would be crinkled. In the throes of my disbelieving anger, however, I couldn’t bring myself to much care. I turned away with a frustrated groan and went back to work. My chest tightened in anxiety at the conversation I would soon be having with Teagan. He was not going to be happy about this. I wasn’t happy, either. Deep down something told me that this wasn’t over.
Ryan Caldwell was nothing but trouble.