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Chapter 10

That Wednesday Dylan picked me and Ava up to grab dinner after class with some of his roommates. Jane was going to meet us there. Mostly I was curious to see what sort of guys Dylan lived with.

Kent and the infamous Rick were both juniors. Rick was a geography major, which apparently left him sufficient time to pursue his athletic and social interests, while Kent was in engineering like Dylan. Both Ava and I had heard far too many intimate details of Rick’s life to be interested in sharing so much as a straw with him, but Ava seemed to have a very different opinion of Kent.

I couldn’t blame her. Kent was quintessential California. Blond hair and a rugged jaw topped off a surfer body. He looked like he lived on salt water and sunshine and was born to run beaches shirtless. Apparently he did all that and managed to keep up in engineering courses. At least enough so that he made passing grades, though from what Dylan had said Kent definitely wasn’t top of his class.

Over burgers and fries Kent regaled us with stories of a surfing trip to Costa Rica he’d taken with his family the year before. Ava was practically drooling in his cola as he described their activities. I thought at one point she was going to ask him to strip and act it out.

At Ava’s insistence, our “no dating until launch” policy didn’t extend to cover one-time, no-strings hookups. If her current actions were any indication, she was ready to fully exploit the fine print.

“I’ve heard the girls there are hot. Are they hotter than American girls?” Ava’s eyes were big and her hand reached out to graze his arm. She was about as subtle as a flashing neon sign spelling out DO ME in lime green halogen.

Kent, sitting across from me, seemed oblivious and was probably used to the attention. And, being hit on by Ava wasn’t a hardship. “Yeah, the girls in Costa Rica are pretty great, but compared to Cali girls?” He turned to look at me, flashed a toothpaste commercial smile. “It’s no contest.” Whoa, boy.

It was flattering, but I tripped on the irony. Ava and I looked nothing like your typical beach babes. Her dark coloring and my red hair and gray eyes would get us kicked off a music video set faster than you could say “peroxide.” Still, Ava was all kinds of beautiful, and she clearly liked him. I was confident she’d have him wrapped around her finger by the time the bill arrived.

Jane arrived late and squeezed in next to me, across from Rick. I shifted closer to Dylan to give her more room. My leg brushed his and I didn’t feel the urge to jump back. He didn’t seem to have noticed.

Despite a few tense moments Monday by my car, I was getting better at relaxing around him. It was a good thing because I’d have to if we were going to be friends.

Rick was trying to impress Jane with dismal results. He seemed to be running out of things to ask her after having established she wasn’t into football, rock concerts, or parties. Though he didn’t seem to be doing anything too outrageous, his reputation was enough to send my conservative friend into lockdown mode. After she shot me a couple of “help me!” looks, I headed to the restroom, nodding for her to come with me, so we had a reason to switch places when we got back to the table.

By the time we returned the conversation had moved to partying. “So this girl Kelsey, ass like a stripper, and—”

“Lex, I want to hear about New York.” Dylan cut Rick off in the midst of what would have been an embarrassing disclosure for Kelsey, whoever she was. His eyes were pleading with me to fix the cringe-inducing direction the conversation had taken.

“Sadly, there were no strippers. But I did manage to find the one apartment in the city with affordable rent and a roommate who wasn’t a rat or an alcoholic.” I’d landed half an enormous-by-NYC-standards two bedroom sublet shared with a Ukrainian student whose parents had sent her to the U.S. to model. She’d paid for more than half the rent in exchange for me helping her write letters to prospective agents.

Nadia was six feet tall, spoke about ten words of English, and called me Lexus. Her pronunciation of that particular word was good because she’d dated a guy who had driven one. By the time we parted ways at the end of August, we were decent friends. Mostly what endeared her to me was that I never had to worry about her eating my food from the fridge.

Talk of NYC led into a conversation about our travel inspirations, gamely held up by the others. It was a bit of a shock. New York was mecca for me, and I hadn’t considered what I’d do after I made it there.

Jane visited China every other year to see her mom’s family. The way she talked about the country emphasized that it really was the other side of the world.

Dylan jumped in next. “I’ve always wanted to go to Africa. Engineering has these exchanges for undergrads. You can go to Tanzania and help with infrastructure projects, like building homes and schools.” He leaned forward in the booth. “It’s pretty unbelievable to think that you can actually change someone’s life with a few weeks and your hands.” It surprised me to see that talking about it totally lit him up. He shed the cool-Dylan skin and became a regular guy talking about something he loved.

My stories about New York suddenly seemed dull by contrast. I’d never spent a lot of time thinking about what people in other parts of the world were facing. Realizing how much I didn’t know made me feel a bit guilty but mostly curious. My world, stretching from California to New York, had always seemed big enough, but hearing Jane and Dylan talk sparked something in me.

When we’d nearly polished off our meals, Kent headed up to the till to use a credit card. Ava followed behind like she had him in a tractor beam.

Rick had been in the bathroom for at least ten minutes, and I wondered if he’d picked up our waitress on the way back there. I didn’t want to know the details and was hoping he’d hitch his own ride home.

“Thanks for dinner, guys,” Jane said. I stood up to let her out of the booth. “LSAT prep calls.”

Just Dylan and I were left, sitting on the same side but with a nearly comfortable distance between us now that Jane was gone. He was polishing off his fries. I was craning my neck to watch the will-they-won’t-they show unfolding at the front of the diner. “I think Ava’s got her sights set on that one,” I whispered, though they probably couldn’t have heard us anyway.

Dylan looked over for a moment, then leaned across me to grab one of my fries, having finished his own.

“Who, Kent? She won’t have much luck.” Dylan looked at me thoughtfully as he chewed. “He’s into you. He saw you at the party last week. Hell, it’s probably why he tagged along tonight.”

Surprise registered. “Because Kent and I have so much in common. We never even talked.” Because I spent most of the night with you.

A wry smile surfaced. “You think attraction is based on having things in common?” Dylan shook his head once. “I thought I was supposed to be the naïve one.”

“But come on,” I argued. “That’s like driving down the road to McDonald’s when you have an all you can eat buffet at home. You guys have stripper-types through your house every day. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s Ava, ready to—” Dylan winced and held up a hand.

“Stop. First, that’s the worst metaphor I’ve ever heard. Second, that is my sister you’re talking about.”

“Fine. But what I’m saying is she’s gorgeous. And charismatic. And obviously interested.” I glanced over to the counter. My words were punctuated by the sound of Ava laughing musically at whatever Kent had said. “What’s not to like?”

Dylan selected another fry and held it up like he was inspecting it. The fry must’ve passed the test, as he bit into it and looked back to me, thoughtful. “What’s not to like about you? Sure, you have more sarcasm per square inch than any other mammal.” His eyes flicked over me just casually enough that I managed not to twitch. “But if a guy can survive that, the rest isn’t bad.”

I threw a fry at him. My baser instincts. Dylan caught it, grinning.

Though I’d gotten compliments from guys before, I was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of someone being into me based on looks alone. Kiss with Dylan aside, it wasn’t normal for me to have burn-you-both-up chemistry with another person.

“You really think Kent’s interested in me?” The thought seemed ludicrous. I glanced back up toward the till. I noticed Dylan was eyeing me up.

“What if he is?” He asked. “Won’t that put a kink in your whole no-guys policy?”

“Meh,” I joked. “Zero plus or minus one … still pretty close to no guys. Statistically speaking.”

He didn’t laugh, but he did check his watch.

“I have to go.” He sounded a bit reluctant as he dropped some cash on the table. “Do you need a ride?” I did, but Dylan hadn’t said where he was going and I didn’t even know if I was on the way. I didn’t want to put him out as it felt like he’d been driving us around all week.

“I can take them.” Kent and Ava had just returned from the till. She was still within easy reach of him, but he was looking at me.

Dylan’s eyes flicked from me to Kent and back, processing. In the end he just shrugged. “Sure. Later.”

Kent drove us home in his jeep. When I asked about Dylan’s hasty departure, he explained. “Dylan’s going out with Marcia Adams tonight. She’s a junior, cheerleading co-captain. Big fish for a soph. All the guys in the house want to … ah, date her,” he said, shifting uncomfortably when he realized he was talking to two females. He smiled apologetically.

Dear God. It was like high school all over again. I wondered whether she was one of the girls Dylan had mentioned when we first ran into each other. Kent said he’d only seen her around the house once, that she was in her cheerleading uniform and that Rick knew her from football. Apparently Rick’s biggest complaint was that she hadn’t let him in her pants, though not for lack of trying.

For some reason it surprised me that Dylan would be after the same girl all the other jock-types, including guys like Rick, were into. The more I spent time with him, the more it seemed was going on below the surface. While I hadn’t met Marcia, if she was friends with Rick I was willing to bet she had the intellectual range of a Chia Pet.

I was still distracted by my musings when we pulled up in front of the house. Thanking Kent for the ride, I hopped out of the jeep first, leaving him and Ava to whatever they would or wouldn’t do.

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